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Opinion Why our school district is defying Florida’s ban on mask mandates — even if it means we lose funding

Signs in a hallway remind students to wear masks and distance themselves at Fox Trail Elementary School, in Davie, Fla., on Oct. 9, 2020. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
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Carlee Simon is superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools.

Carlee Simon discusses this piece in more detail on James Hohmann's podcast, "Please, Go On." Listen now.

As superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools in North Central Florida, I am committed to providing a high-quality education while protecting the health and well-being of nearly 35,000 students and staff members. That’s proved to be an enormous challenge in my state.

Just a few weeks ago, my district was planning for a more “normal” school year free from many of the safety restrictions of the past year. But a surge in covid-19 cases has upended those plans, at least temporarily. And unfortunately, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) refuses to take the steps necessary to address the surge. Even worse, he’s preventing local leaders from doing what they can to protect their own communities.

The governor recently threatened to withhold funds from school districts that implement certain safety measures, particularly masking. But we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the current crisis to score political points.

My district is experiencing a dramatic spike in the number of employees testing positive for covid-19, and school hasn’t even started. We’ve had more cases reported in the past two weeks than in the previous five months combined. Tragically, two of our employees died from covid-related complications just over a week ago. Many others are quarantined and unable to work, and the numbers keep rising. If these trends continue, we may not have the workforce we need to operate our schools safely.

I’ve already implemented a mandatory mask policy for all employees and visitors. We’re also actively promoting vaccinations. Our district is offering a $100 vaccination incentive to all employees, and we will cover their leave time if they get a breakthrough case of covid-19. We’re also scheduling more in-school vaccination clinics for students and staff.

Unfortunately, those steps will not be enough to avert a community-wide health-care crisis. During a lengthy school board meeting last week, many local doctors and health-care professionals shared alarming news about the spread of the virus in our county, which is under a state of emergency. They talked about record-breaking case numbers and hospitalizations, even among previously healthy children. They told us about intensive care units at or over capacity, emergency response teams stretched thin and medical procedures delayed.

In light of this sobering reality, the board voted unanimously and courageously to require masks for all students during the first two weeks of school, a necessary step to start the academic year safely. We’ll reassess the situation before deciding on our next step.

The board’s vote has touched off a whirlwind. While hundreds of parents, students and others have thanked us for prioritizing safety, we’ve faced the inevitable backlash from those who oppose mask requirements and reject the severity and even the existence of covid-19. I've been called a monster, child-abuser, communist, fascist, idiot and other names not fit to print. I've been threatened with legal action, protests, militia “enforcement” and worse.

Those parents who oppose our mask requirement do have another option. The state is now offering a voucher called a Hope Scholarship to families who want to enroll their child in a private school or a public school in a district that doesn’t require masks. The scholarship gives families the ability to “opt-out” of masking while still allowing us to provide as safe an environment as possible.

Certainly we’re concerned about the threat of lost funding, but it shouldn’t come to that. After all, we want what DeSantis wants: to keep schools open and our kids in the classroom. The past year has proved that in-person learning is best for the vast majority of students. Through universal masking we can limit the number of students and teachers out sick or in quarantine, which means more instructional time and better educational outcomes.

More importantly, universal masking will promote the health and safety of those inside and outside our school walls.

The Florida Constitution says the state has a “paramount duty” to provide safe and high-quality public schools. It’s one of the highest constitutional standards for public education in the nation. We hope and expect that our state leaders will live up to that duty.

I will certainly do my part. I value life too much to take chances with the lives of others, even under the threat of retaliation. As our school board chair has so aptly put it, better a loss of funding than a loss of lives.