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Opinion Florida’s new anti-masking law denies us key tools to protect our schools from future covid surges

Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., on Aug. 10. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Carlee Simon is superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools in Florida.

Our hands have been tied.

If and when there’s another covid surge in Florida, public schools will be without two of the most useful weapons in our fight against the virus: masks and quarantines.

After months of harassing school districts, including mine, over our covid-19 protocols, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Florida Legislature have just passed a new law that blocks schools from requiring masks for students and quarantines for students and staff who appear asymptomatic. The governor even called a special legislative session to get this and other bills targeting covid-19 measures passed — although he conveniently waited until the delta-driven covid surge of the late summer and early fall had subsided in the state.

Of course, the outcome of the session was never in any doubt. DeSantis and other state leaders vehemently opposed mask mandates and quarantine protocols even as positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from covid skyrocketed in Florida during the first few weeks of school. They fought school districts that required them tooth and nail, even withholding our funding because we did what was necessary to protect students and staff during a public health crisis.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the governor insists that masks are ineffective and even harmful. To bolster his viewpoint, he fast-tracked the appointment of Joseph Ladapo — an anti-vaccine, anti-mask, hydroxychloroquine-promoting doctor apparently focused on undermining rather than protecting public health — as the state’s surgeon general.

Their nonscientific and nonsensical agenda is now enshrined in Florida law. From here on out, school districts cannot require masks no matter what happens in the future.

Never mind that covid cases are rising in half of the states and that experts are warning of a potential winter spike. If another surge comes to Florida, schools will have been hamstrung by state leaders more concerned about appeasing their governor and his political base than promoting the health and well-being of their constituents.

Fortunately, covid cases among our district’s students and staff are way down from their peak in August. We know that masks, quarantines and other mitigation strategies have limited the spread of the virus in our schools and community — and very likely saved lives.

Like many other school districts throughout the country, we have a small but vocal group of citizens who opposed those strategies. Things have gotten ugly at times. We recently had to disable public comments on our district’s Facebook page because of threats and personal attacks from, and even between, local citizens. Often the talking points online and during board meetings have spilled over into topics that have become intertwined with anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric nationally, such as critical race theory, to gin up even more controversy and activate more opposition.

On the other hand, we’ve also had plenty of support for our efforts. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and his staff provided grant funding to make up for what the state took away. They also filed a cease-and-desist complaint when Florida’s education officials withheld federal covid-relief funding from districts that imposed mask mandates. We are currently waiting for the state to reimburse our district’s funds after our board — pressured by legal threats and the approaching legislative special session — voted to allow for parents to opt out of masking and quarantining.

The backing of the federal government, community leaders, medical experts, and a majority of families and employees has helped us carry on despite intense political, legal and financial pushback. I am forever grateful to those who encouraged us to keep doing what was best for kids.

We should not have had to fight our own state to protect our students, families and staff. I am shocked and disappointed in the many state leaders who put politics ahead of public health and safety.

But I will be forever proud of what we did over the last few months. The brave actions of our school board members and other boards across the state bought us valuable time in the battle against covid-19. Let’s just hope it was enough time.