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Alachua is final Florida school district to ditch its mask mandate

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Maya Erwin
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

This week's decisions in Alachua, Miami-Dade and Broward counties mean all eight school districts that faced state financial penalties because of mask mandates have reversed course.

The Alachua County school board on Wednesday voted 3-2 to comply with student mask requirements the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health have set.

The decision means all eight school districts that faced state financial penalties because of noncompliant mask mandates have reversed course.

Starting Friday, Alachua public school parents will be given the option to complete an “opt-out” form for their child, indicating that they would rather not have their child participate in the mask mandate.

Alachua's opt-out option will be used until Dec. 17. Once the winter break comes to an end, all mask wearing will once again be optional for all students of all ages.

On Tuesday, Broward County decided all students can go maskless beginning Nov. 20 and Miami-Dade announced parents can fill out a form to opt out.

Broward, Miami-Dade, Alachua, Palm Beach, Leon, Orange, Duval, and Brevard counties, faced financial penalties from the Florida Department of Education after they bucked efforts by the state to prevent mask mandates. The penalties were equal to the monthly salaries of board members.

The boards in Alachua, Miami-Dade, Broward, Leon, Orange and Duval filed a legal challenge against a Florida Department of Health rule that was a basis for the financial penalties. That rule said parents have “sole discretion” about whether students wear masks in schools.

Administrative Law Judge Brian Newman last week upheld the rule, writing that the health department struck the “right balance” and that attorneys for the school boards failed to prove that allowing parents to opt out of mask requirements facilitated the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The Miami-Dade, Broward, Alachua, Duval and Leon boards appealed Newman’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal. Leon and Orange have dropped out of the case.

“Our situation now is, we basically have no way forward in the courts. And I think it’s at that point time to put this aside. We also have lowering (COVID-19) numbers. We all know that could change. But we are in a better position than we’ve been in quite a while,” Alachua board member Robert Hyatt, who requested his board hold a special meeting to address the mask requirements.

Several parents demanded the mask mandate be extended as an effort to protect their children from COVID-19, while others argued that it should be immediately put to an end to protect their personal rights, he said during the meeting.

Alachua County Parent Teacher Association president Mary Benedict said that the PTA fully supported the school board’s decision to extend the mask mandate with the “opt-out” option.

“We support prioritizing the health and safety of students,” Benedict said. “We absolutely supported when the board kept the mask mandate, despite some of the legal challenges, because they are keeping our kids safe,” she said.

According to Benedict, young students will be more likely to show up masked to school when the mandate is in place, which will help protect students who may be immunocompromised and face more fatal COVID-19 symptoms than others.

Tillissa Barcia, mother of two students, spoke up at the school board meeting about the risk that removing a mask mandate may have over her special needs daughter.

Barcia said that her son has called in to school board meetings week after week in hopes of sharing his concerns for his sister’s safety.

“He would be crushed if anything happened to her and y’all know that. You heard it in his voice,” Barcia said Wednesday afternoon.

She continued, “We are letting these kids down. They are our future. They are our dream. They’re everything that we put them here for.”

Despite efforts from some parents to encourage the mask mandate within Alachua schools, several others have spoken out against this COVID-19 precaution.

“Remove the mandate language entirely, including the policy,” one unnamed caller said at the meeting. “Our tax dollars are not to be used for this wasteful, disgraceful policy.”

Information from News Service of Florida was used in this report.