As the number of COVID-19 cases increases, Florida school boards are looking for ways to protect teachers, staff and students from the virus, including a requirement that everyone on campus and riding a school bus wear masks. But Gov. Ron DeSantis is insisting that mask-wearing should be optional.
Most school districts in Florida are following the governor’s order but some are standing up to him, and in doing so they face threatened financial penalties. On Wednesday, the School Board of Broward County held a special meeting to approve the district’s school reopening.
After listening to comments from 48 speakers and reviewing more than 350 written comments submitted by community members, the school board for the state’s second-largest district voted eight to one to follow most of the rules given by the Department of Health and the Florida Board of Education. The one exception requires schools to allow for a parent or legal guardian to opt out of a requirement that their child wears a face covering or mask on campus unless the student has a medical waiver. This includes on school buses.
The school board also authorized the district to retain outside counsel to evaluate and file legal action to challenge Gov. DeSantis’s emergency rule.
School board chair Dr. Rosalind Osgood said she believes that students must wear face coverings in classrooms and school buses. “We are going to have 60 kids on buses this fall. I believe they must wear a face covering,” she said. “I am more concerned about the lives of our children even if this means I lose my paycheck.”
Osgood said she believed people in her community would support her if necessary.
During the meeting, Broward school board member Nora Rupert said she was prepared to lose her salary and that she would work harder to protect school children.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran responded to the decision by threatening to withhold money from the board if the members don’t reverse their decision on requiring all students to wear masks on buses and on campus. This letter was sent almost immediately after the meeting to Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and Dr. Osgood. The letter indicates that Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health have ordered only parents can determine whether their children should wear masks. The letter promised an investigation if the board does not comply.
“There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children,” Corcoran said in a statement.
DeSantis has said that school boards members and their superintendents might not get paid if they defy his order. The state might withhold the amount of money equal to their salaries. In Broward, the amount paid to Cartwright and the nine Board members is close to $700,000.
Cartwright said the board did not take the decision lightly. She indicated members may look to the federal government for financial help if necessary. “We are responsible for the lives of students. This is an issue of state control versus local control,” she said.
Most school districts are following DeSantis’s order but are also strongly urging students to wear masks while in classrooms or school buses.
“We are following the governor’s orders but are telling parents we want their children to wear masks while on buses,” said Arby Creach, director of school transportation for Osceola District Schools. If a child shows up at a school bus door without a mask, the driver is expected to offer one. “If the child takes the mask and wears it good. But if not, there is not much we can do,” he added.
Creach noted there will also be no more than two students in each seat on Osceola buses, and windows will be down and roof hatches open while the buses are operating. “The air conditioners will be running, and hand sanitizer will be available on all buses,” he added.
He also said he expects many parents will drive their children to and from school, while others will have their children attend virtual school programs.
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Meanwhile, Gov. DeSantis has said repeatedly that he believes parents should be able to choose whether their children should wear masks in school or on buses. He believes there is a very low risk of severe COVID-19 cases in children and that face masks could hinder children’s ability to learn. He said he also believes it is harder for children to breathe while wearing masks.
The Alachua County School Board also voted to require students to wear masks during at least the first two weeks of school. The Duval County School Board also agreed to require students to wear masks. Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna has asked DeSantis to allow a temporary mask mandate for pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
Recently, the Florida Department of Health issued an emergency rule that requires school districts to allow parents to opt out of school mask requirements. It also offers Hope Scholarship vouchers to families that do not want their children to be forced to wear masks on campus.