School districts get creative in working around Florida's mask mandate ban


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At least four Florida school districts are trying to work around Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order barring school boards from requiring students to wear masks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSantis last week issued an executive order that, in part, directed Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to withhold funds from “noncompliant” school boards that impose mask requirements during the school year that starts in a matter of days.

After DeSantis’ order, the school districts in Gadsden and Broward counties quickly reversed plans to require students to wear masks. But on Wednesday, the Broward County School Board said on its website that it was returning to a mask requirement.

“In light of the governor’s executive order, the district is awaiting further guidance before rendering a decision on the mask mandate for the upcoming school year. At this time, the district’s face covering policy, which requires the use of masks in district schools and facilities, remains in place,” the board’s updated guidance said.

Broward’s school board will “discuss next steps” during a meeting Tuesday.

Other districts this week began testing how far they can go to require masks as the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus rages in Florida —- setting up potential showdowns with Corcoran and the governor.

The Alachua County School Board voted Tuesday to require students to wear masks during the first two weeks of school, which would be until Aug. 20. Under the policy, only students with a “documented medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask” could request exemptions.

The Alachua board will re-evaluate the requirement during a meeting on Aug. 17.

In Duval County, which has seen a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases, the school board voted Tuesday to amend its student code of conduct to include a mask-wearing requirement. But unlike Alachua, Duval’s policy would not require a medical reason for parents to request their student be exempted.

“Any student not wearing a mask pursuant to this policy must, through his/her/their parent or guardian, complete the opt out procedures provided by his/her/their assigned school," the policy said.

Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, meanwhile, is requesting that the governor provide flexibility for local control on masks. Hanna sent a letter to DeSantis asking that the district be allowed to implement a “temporary” mask mandate for pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

“I received word over the weekend that we now have several school-aged children in our local hospitals. That is the game-changer for me,” Hanna said during a news conference Wednesday.

COVID-19 vaccines are not available for children under age 12, which means most children in elementary schools and many in middle schools cannot get the shots.

“One size doesn’t fit all 67 counties and 2.6 million students. Just as you stand up for the sovereignty of the state of Florida from federal mandates and executive orders, I too must advocate on behalf of my community and my school children,” Hanna wrote.

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw didn’t directly answer a question from the The News Service of Florida about whether Alachua and Duval boards are violating the governor’s order with their updated rules. Pushaw said Wednesday that the state Department of Health and the Department of Education will issue rules “to protect parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.”

“We are finalizing health and education emergency rules this week that 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,” Pushaw said.

Hanna said Wednesday that DeSantis’ threat to withhold funding is “disappointing” and added that he had not heard back from the governor since he requested approval of the temporary mask mandate.

“It’s just disappointing, that rhetoric, that we can’t talk and work things out. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Hanna said.

DeSantis’ push to block local mask mandates is drawing criticism from President Joe Biden’s administration.

“If you are not going to be a part of the solution, if you are not going to be a part of saving people’s lives, then get out of the way and let other people do the job,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Tuesday. “That means don’t ban, don’t make it harder for people to put requirements on masks, or asking for vaccination status, into law.”

As Florida districts review mask-wearing policies for students, some have set different rules for adults on campus.

Alachua schools, for example, are requiring masks for all district employees, visitors and vendors who come to campuses, citing “rapidly rising COVID cases in the community and among employees” of the district.

Duval, Leon and Broward schools also are requiring masks for staff, visitors and vendors who come to campuses.

The governor’s order last week came after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated guidance to recommend mask-wearing for all people in schools.

“The forced masking, it has harmed students,” DeSantis said during an event Friday in Cape Coral. “The question is, shouldn’t this be something that the parent is at best to evaluate, the effect that this would have on their children?”

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