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School Mask Hearing Opens With Focus On Delta Variant Transmission

Gavel and a stethoscope
Flickr Creative

A USF epidemiologist testified that a Brown University study referenced by Gov. Ron DeSantis to defend his executive order is problematic.

A Leon County judge on Monday began hearing testimony in a lawsuit brought by a dozen parents who want to overturn the governor’s executive order requiring parents to decide whether their children wear masks in school.

The lawsuit contends school boards should have authority to require masks as a health and safety matter. The state contends Gov. Ron DeSantis' order meets constitutional and legal requirements to give parents a choice.

The hearing began with testimony focused heavily on the transmissibility of the delta variant.

The variant is so contagious that if it were compound interest, investors would see a great return, "but in this case, it’s exponential growth of a pretty terrifying infection," University of South Florida epidemiologist Thomas Unnash testified.

DeSantis’ administration's order stops school districts from mandating students wear face coverings amid growing concern about children — once thought largely immune to COVID-19 — becoming sicker.

DeSantis has argued masks use should be voluntary and has repeatedly pointed to a study from Brown University that questions the efficacy of face coverings in schools. That study, says Unnash, is problematic.

“They were trying to disentangle, rather unsuccessfully, a whole variety of different factors that could lead to the result they got … but they did not take into account levels of community transmission," Unnash said.

Unnash said the Brown researchers also couldn’t control for classroom density or ventilation, among other issues. A peer review is in progress but hasn’t been completed, which is a must for validation and verification of findings.

Parents in the lawsuit claim voluntary mask use is an unacceptable risk to the health of their children. And they want districts to be able to mandate face coverings. Several district have done so, despite the administration’s threats of taking away funding and removing officials from office.

“When it comes to masking it schools, this is hardly a settled issue. There is an ongoing debate over whether masks are more harmful than beneficial to children, or in school environments in general. The governor’s executive order recognized this explicitly," said Michael Able, an attorney for the state.

Judge John Cooper told the sides that if they want to reach some kind of an agreement before he rules, they can.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.