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More school districts around Florida are deciding that the state’s lenient rules on mask wearing pose a danger to students as COVID-19 rages.
Four of the state’s five biggest districts — including Palm Beach County schools on Wednesday night — have voted to require masks except for medical reasons. Their actions defy state rules championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that allow parents to decide whether their children wear masks.
Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties also took that step Wednesday, joining Broward and Alachua counties. The Orange County School Board was expected to consider the issue Thursday.
The resistance comes at a time when the delta coronavirus variant has made Florida one of the nation’s worst states for COVID-19′s spread. The state reported 23,335 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, with more younger people getting sick, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Students in Palm Beach County began their school year Aug. 10 with a parental opt-out policy that allowed more than 10,000 children to attend classes without masks. By Thursday, the district had recorded 929 confirmed infections: 813 students and 116 staff. More than 1,700 students have been sent home home because of possible exposure.
The School Board voted 6-1 to require all students and staff to wear masks on school grounds starting Monday. The mandate will be in place for 90 days, and the policy will allow for some medical exemptions.
Board member Karen Brill said the mask requirement would not be an imposition for most students. Only about 5% to 6% of the district’s 179,000 students have opted to go without masks, Brill said.
“I could not look myself in the mirror any longer and say that I am doing everything I can to make my schools safe,” Brill told the board. “I will not let myself be driven by 5% to 6% of the families.”
The board acknowledged that principals and school officials, already overwhelmed over controlling COVID in schools, will face additional challenges now in enforcing the mandate and disciplining students who don’t comply.
Board member Barbara McQuinn, the lone dissenting vote, told the board Wednesday that out of the hundreds of emails they’ve received from parents, the majority are in favor of a mask mandate.
Hillsborough, which also began its school year last week, changed its policy during an emergency meeting Wednesday after tallying 2,058 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and sending more than 10,000 students into isolation due to infection or quarantine due to exposure.
DeSantis issued an executive order last month saying Florida must “protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children.” He tasked the state education commissioner with finding ways to make districts comply.
DeSantis, a Republican, also is in an escalating power struggle with the Democratic White House. After President Joe Biden ordered possible legal action Wednesday, the U.S. Education Department raised the possibility of using its civil rights arm against Florida and other Republican-led states that have blocked public health measures meant to protect students.
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“Some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning,” Biden’s executive order said. “Some State officials have even threatened to impose personal financial consequences on school officials who are working tirelessly to put student health and safety first.”
Biden said he was directing the secretary of education to ensure that states are “taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our Nation’s children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations.”
Biden’s order clearly referred to Florida, where the state Board of Education this week threatened to withhold funding from Broward and Alachua counties and remove school board members from office if necessary.
“The forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents’ rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, said Wednesday. Politicians, including those on school boards, are not above the law, she added.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Sun Sentinel staff writers Scott Travis, Brooke Baitinger and Austen Erblat contributed.