Some of Florida’s largest school districts have announced they will either keep or issue new mask mandates in light of the coronavirus outbreak that is ravaging the state, challenging an order by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) threatening to withhold funds from school districts if they mandate that students wear face coverings.
At least four school districts in the state are pushing back against the governor’s staunch opposition to new virus restrictions or mask mandates after he issued an executive order Friday saying that recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that students wear masks “lacks” scientific justification and warning that the government could withhold state funds from “noncompliant” schools.
The school districts’ resistance comes as the nation grapples with a surge of infections and hospitalizations linked to the delta variant of the coronavirus. It has prompted a nationwide debate on what measures should be implemented for children, particularly those under 12, who are not eligible for vaccination in the United States, as schools return to in-person learning in August, with several Republican governors opposing or blocking mask mandates.
Broward County Public Schools, the second-largest district in Florida and the sixth-largest in the country, announced Wednesday it will keep its mask mandate and await “further guidance before rendering a decision on the mask mandate for the upcoming school year.”
“At this time, the District’s face covering policy, which requires the use of masks in District schools and facilities, remains in place,” the district said in a statement. The announcement came after the school district reversed its mask requirement Monday, saying it wanted to comply with the governor’s order.
“The Broward County School Board has chosen to pause,” board chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said in a video statement Wednesday. “We want to do our due diligence to make sure that whatever the decision we make going forward will be decision that will allow us to keep our students, our staff and our community safe.”
As part of the schools’ reopening plans for the 2021-2022 school year, Broward schools announced last week that face coverings would be mandatory for students, staffers and visitors inside all schools, after the CDC issued new guidance that students and staffers in K-12 schools wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.
The School Board will discuss next steps at a special meeting on Tuesday, the statement said. The first day of classes for Broward schools is Aug. 18.
On Tuesday, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna urged DeSantis to allow the district “the flexibility and the autonomy to make the decisions for our schools that best fit our local data and information,” asking the governor to implement a temporary mask requirement for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
In a letter sent to DeSantis, Hanna expressed concerns over the high transmissibility of the delta variant and said in the past 10 days, four school-aged children in Leon County were admitted to local hospitals. He added that two prekindergarten teachers were in intensive care.
“It is the challenge of every leader to not allow pride or politics to cloud our better judgment, and to be guided by community input, science and experts in the field,” Hanna added.
Leon County Schools will wait until Friday for a response from the governor’s office or for any new guidance from the Florida Department of Education, a spokesperson for the superintendent’s office told The Washington Post.
The Duval County School Board also voted Tuesday to mandate masks in the classroom with an opt-out option for parents.
The vote came after parents and health officials spoke during an hours-long public comment period, during which board members questioned how much money they could lose, whether they could require masks without interfering with the governor’s order, or oppose DeSantis in court.
Jon Phillips from the city of Jacksonville’s general counsel’s office said during the meeting that a possible challenge of the governor’s order would entail a “fairly lengthy discussion,” without ruling it out.
CBS affiliate WJAX-TV reported that before the School Board meeting, about 100 people gathered outside the Duval County Public Schools headquarters to rally for a mandate, chanting, “Masks for all in the fall!”
On the same day, a smaller school district in Alachua County, where the University of Florida is located, also decided to mandate masks of children for the first two weeks of school after Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon raised concerns about the spreading virus. She said two custodians had died of covid-19 over the weekend.
“For us to be able to do the business of running a school district, we need people masked,” she said during the meeting. Simon added that unmasked students exposed to the virus would need to quarantine, hindering their school attendance.
School district spokeswoman Jackie Johnson told The Post it isn’t known yet what portion, if any, of the $141 million in state funds the district receives could be withheld. “We are certainly hoping that the governor and other state leaders recognize that their goal is our goal: to keep schools open,” she said.
At the meeting, Kristen Thompson held up a photo of her grinning 7-year-old daughter, Payton, who wouldn’t be able to attend school if other students don’t wear masks, Thompson said. Payton has Trisomy 18, a chromosomal abnormality that causes developmental delays, her mother said.
Thompson told The Post that she wanted officials to remember children with special needs like her daughter, who she said are endangered when school districts are forced to prioritize their budgets over the health of those students.
“We’re asking everyone to work together to protect the people who can’t wear masks,” she said. “It’s just a mask, it’s not complicated. It’s just a piece of cloth.”
DeSantis’s order establishes that the state Board of Education can withhold the transfer of state funds, discretionary grant funds, discretionary lottery funds or any other funds until a school district complies with the governor’s directive.
The board also can declare a school district ineligible for competitive grants, the order said.
Broward County Mayor Steve Geller on Wednesday questioned the legality of DeSantis’s threat to withhold funding and criticized the governor for limiting local public health workers, but said a legal brawl wouldn’t be worth the trouble while the county seeks state assistance and funding on other priorities.
“The governor and legislature have immense influence over Broward County and every county in the state, and I’m not going to poke either of them in the eye,” Geller said in an interview.
The CDC’s revised guidance on mask use for children is based on information that shows the delta variant is more transmissible, and experts have argued that the measure will protect the unvaccinated — including children younger than 12 who are not yet eligible to receive a vaccine.
More than 17,000 children had been hospitalized with the virus in 23 states and New York City as of July 29, according to a database of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.
The school districts’ stance comes as Florida becomes the new center of the delta variant outbreak; the state accounts for 1 in 5 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection nationwide. Over the weekend, the Sunshine State reported its largest ever single-day increase in new coronavirus cases and a record for hospitalizations, with more than 10,000 patients.
On Wednesday the state reported more than 12,400 hospitalizations, a record high, according to data collected by The Post.
DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates in schools is the latest step taken by the governor defying or criticizing federal guidance, adding to clashes and tensions between the governor and the White House.
DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw told The Post that the governor has “consistently encouraged” Floridians to get vaccinated and that children are allowed to wear masks “if they and their parents make that choice.”
As the outbreak continues, a fraught discussion over masks in schools has played out in several states around the country. Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Kim Reynolds of Iowa have signed bills prohibiting mask requirements.
In Missouri, where Gov. Mike Parson (R) has also opposed mask mandates in schools, at least two school districts so far have signaled a return to universal masking.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas has asked lawmakers to reconsider a bill he signed months ago that barred local officials from requiring face coverings, so that school districts can require children to wear masks when they return to classes this fall.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) announced Tuesday all students and staff members at pre-K through 12th-grade schools will be required to wear masks. Last month, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said face coverings will be required for students and adults in schools this fall.
New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, will also require masks in schools.
President Biden condemned DeSantis and other governors for opposing mask mandates Tuesday, telling them to “get out of the way.”
“Why don’t you do your job?” the Florida Republican blasted the president during a news conference Wednesday. “Why don’t you get this border secure? And until you do that, I don’t wanna hear a blip about covid from you, thank you.”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.