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More than half of Florida’s students now go to schools mandating masks in defiance of DeSantis

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho walks with students outside iPrep Academy in Miami on Aug. 23, the first day of school. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

More than half of Florida’s students are now enrolled in public school districts with mask mandates despite threats of sanctions from the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who decreed that only parents can decide whether their children wear masks.

On Tuesday night, two school districts — in Orange and Indian River counties — approved mandates to try to stop the spread of the delta variant of the novel coronavirus. They joined eight other districts that recently moved to require a medical exemption from a doctor to opt out.

The state is a hot spot for coronavirus cases, with a positivity rate for new cases at nearly 20 percent as hospitals keep filling with patients.

Two of the 10 districts that voted for strict mandates — Indian River and Sarasota — supported Donald Trump for president in 2020. DeSantis is counting on voters in these districts for support in his bid for reelection next year. The others — Miami-Dade County, Broward, Hillsborough, Leon, Alachua, Palm Beach, Orange and Duval — supported Joe Biden.

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According to Florida Department of Education enrollment tallies for 2020-21, combined student enrollment in those 10 counties is about 52 percent of total enrollment. There were 2,791,687 students enrolled in that year, and the combined enrollment exceeds 1.45 million.

Since DeSantis’s July 30 executive order, districts have watched coronavirus cases rise, including among young people. On Monday, officials in Orange County said children 5 to 14 years old accounted for the majority of new cases, according to Bay News 9.

Orange County Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins told the school board Tuesday night that the district was changing its masking policy for staff and students by eliminating the parental opt-out and allowing only medical exemptions for at least 60 days.

Also Tuesday night, the school board of the Indian River County school district voted 3-to 2 for a temporary K-8 mask mandate requiring a medical exemption. “It seems to me, in my view, I’d rather be safe than sorry,” school board Chairman Brian Barefoot said.

He also said the future of the mask mandate will be clearer over the next few weeks when more is learned about the spread of the delta variant and about an expected ruling by a Leon County court judge who is hearing a lawsuit challenging DeSantis’s order. Other lawsuits have been filed against the order as well.

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State officials have repeatedly threatened to withhold the pay — or remove — school board members who have voted for mandates. Under the Florida Constitution, the governor can suspend elected officials. DeSantis would have to move against several dozen board members at this point if he opted to do that.

State officials have already started to move against the first two districts that approved tough mask mandates — Alachua and Broward — seeking compensation records for school board members who voted for the mandates. The state’s Board of Education is expected to move against others in the same way this week.

The DeSantis administration says these districts are violating Florida law by imposing these mandates, which violate the governor’s order. Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email: “Nobody is above the law, not even school board politicians.”

She also said: “There is no empirical evidence to support the assertion that the benefits of forced masking of schoolchildren outweigh the potential harms. Masking kids under 12 is not recommended in many EU countries, because their health authorities have found that the risks are not well understood — and the data shows that forced masking of young children has a negligible impact on covid prevalence and spread.”

Public health experts dispute this, saying that masking, along with vaccinations, is an essential tool to help stop the spread of the delta variant in schools, and that there is no evidence that children are harmed by wearing masks in school.

Nipunie Rajapakse, a doctor and an expert on pediatric infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic, said: “Because of the concerns that have been raised about whether there are any negative effects of masking on children, there have been now numerous studies done. These studies have unequivocally shown that there are no negative health effects on children from wearing a mask.”

Ask The Post: We’re taking your questions on returning to school amid the delta variant

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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