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Most School Districts With Mask Mandates Include Opt-Outs For Parents

Students return to school at Seminole Heights Elementary School after the Florida Department of Education mandated that all schools must have in-class learning during the week on August 31, 2020 in Tampa, Florida.
Students return to school in August 2020 at Seminole Heights Elementary School in Tampa. School starts in Hillsborough County on Tuesday.

Most of the districts that decided to keep mask mandates despite the governor's executive order are following new rules put in place by the state's Department of Health and Board of Education.

Several Florida school districts are keeping mask mandates in place for the upcoming school year, despite an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that leaves it up to parents to decide whether their children wear face coverings in school.

School boards that don't eliminate mask mandates could face the loss of state funding.

On Friday, Florida's Board of Education further complicated matters for public schools by announcing it would provide vouchers for parents who see mask-wearing requirements as "harrassment" of their children.

The new rule says a public school student who is subject to "COVID-19 harassment" which can include mask and COVID testing requirements, is eligible for a Hope Scholarship, which would allow the child to transfer to a private school or a public school in a different district.

Most of the districts maintaining mask mandates are including an opt-out for parents, based on a rule implanted Friday by the state Board of Education that requires districts to do so.

However, Broward County, the second-largest district in Florida, is not.

Broward cited safety as its top priority announcing the decision to maintain its mask requirement pending further guidance from the state as coronavirus cases surge in Florida.

The Sunshine State has seen a rash of new COVID-19 infections in recent weeks. On Saturday, it recorded 21,683 new coronavirus cases, its highest single-day total since the pandemic began.

But DeSantis, a Republican, said that because vaccines are now prevalent, the decision to mask students should be up to their parents — not the school district.

DeSantis cited a study, conducted in part by Brown University researcher Emily Oster, that did not find "a correlation between mask mandates and COVID-19 rates" in schools in Florida, New York and Massachusetts. Other researchers have pointed out that the study had a big caveat: The data didn’t look at whether students contracted COVID-19 in or outside of school. Oster has said that the data sets were collected before the spread of the hyper-transmissible delta variant, according to The Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students, staff and faculty who are not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus wear a mask indoors. Children under 12 are still not approved for the vaccine in the United States.

The executive order does not prohibit mask mandates outright, but it gives parents the final say as to whether their child would have to wear a face covering in school. No children would be prohibited from wearing a mask if they chose to.

The actions “do not prohibit masks in schools but will require parents to have the right to opt their children out. School districts will be expected to allow parents to make this choice," DeSantis' press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said in a statement.

"[I]t has to be the parent's free choice. Requiring medical documentation to opt out of the mask mandate, for example, would violate the spirit of the EO."

The executive order says Florida could withhold public funds from "noncompliant school boards" that violate the new requirement.

Duval County announced on Thursday that it will require any student not wearing a mask indoors to opt out of the district's policy. Officials in Alachua County voted to require students to wear face coverings for the first two weeks of school.

"We applaud the school boards of Alachua and Duval counties for following the advice of doctors in their community," said the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "We believe every county should be empowered to make decisions on how best to keep their students safe in consultation with local health experts and based on the unique needs and circumstances in their area."

Orange, Palm Beach and Seminole counties passed opt-out mask mandates that will remain in place for 30 days beginning the first day of school on Tuesday. The districts will revisit the policy in mid-September.

In a letter to parents on Saturday posted on the district website, Palm Beach schools Superintendent Michael Burke said the decision was made to safeguard the health of students and staff.

“In determining how best to accomplish that, I have consulted with members of the local and national medical community, I have considered the guidance from local pediatricians who are extremely concerned about the health of our children, and I have discussed this critical decision with our School Board members,” Burke wrote.

In an email sent to parents late Friday, Orange schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins says the decision to enforce masks has been made, “out of an abundance of caution for the safety of our students and employees.”

In a letter to DeSantis, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said he wanted to impose a temporary mask mandate in grades pre-K through 8 to protect students and staff against the delta variant, which is spreading quickly across the country and in Florida. Leon County includes Tallahassee, the state capital.

"I'm asking you to allow us the flexibility and the autonomy to make the decisions for our schools that best fit our local data and information in Leon County," Hanna said.

Hillsborough County schools will require masks until at least Sept. 3, unless a parent or guardian fills out a form to opt their child out. It marks a change of course for the district, which had said previously that masks would be optional.

“While the outcome may be the same whether we make face coverings optional or required with an opt-out, we believe this decision continues to illustrate that Hillsborough County Public Schools takes public safety seriously,” Superintendent Addison Davis said. “We want to ensure we are doing all we can to help community-wide efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

In Polk, Pasco and Pinellas, masks are optional — but strongly recommended.

The Pinellas County School Board has a special meeting scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday.

As of Thursday, Hernando and Sarasota counties say masks are optional for students but strongly recommended. The same holds in Clay and St. Johns.

Manatee County has scheduled a special meeting for Monday to discuss updates at the state level and to update parents before school starts Tuesday. As of last week, masks were optional.

As of Thursday, mask-wearing in Polk, Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties remained optional.

In Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school district, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told CNN on Friday that mask rules are still under discussion. Classes start there Aug. 23.

In several counties, parents have started petitions asking their school boards to reconsider decision to not require students to wear masks.

Meantime, a group of parents of students from several Florida counties with disabilities is suing to strike down DeSantis‘ order as a violation of state and federal law.

Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried on Friday urged parents to follow CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance and mask their children as school starts.

“We know that once there is a positive case in a classroom, that classroom may have to be shut down and everybody quarantined. That means those kids are being sent home and then it’s disrupting their parents, who may have to stay home from work because not everybody has the luxury to telework or to have other family members or individuals who can stay home to watch their kids,” Fried said.

“This is something that really is imperative, not only for the health and safety of our children and for our teachers, but for our economy that needs to keep going if we're going to get past this.”

The following contributed to this report: NPR’s Joe Fernandez and Deepa Shivaram, WUSF’s Kerry Sheridan, WJCT’s Brendan Rivers and Sydney Boles, WFSU’s Valerie Crowder, News Service of Florida and Health News Florida’s Rick Mayer.