Two Florida counties issued mask mandates for students Wednesday, defying the ban on such mandates by Gov. Ron DeSantis and risking sanctions.
Hillsborough County Public Schools voted in favor of a temporary 30-day mandate during an emergency meeting, which was called because 5,599 students and 316 staff members have either tested positive for Covid-19 or been exposed to the coronavirus in the district.
The school board in Miami-Dade, the state’s largest county, also voted in favor of a mask mandate Wednesday.
Both school boards have allowed for medical exemptions to the mandates.
DeSantis issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools and threatened districts that defy the order.
The Florida Board of Education voted Tuesday to penalize the Alachua and Broward county public school districts for their own mask mandates. It’s unclear what kind of sanctions the districts will face; DeSantis has threatened to withhold state funding equal to the salaries of superintendents and all school board members.
Addison Davis, superintendent of the Hillsborough district, advised against a mandate and backed continuing to allow parents to opt their children out of wearing masks, citing the penalties against the two other counties.
“They stood really strong against the stances that two school districts took, and they were very clear about how they will hold funds,” Davis said. “Which, from our organization, we cannot withstand that.”
Davis added, however, that he would support the board no matter what it decided.
In contrast, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho urged the school board to pass the mandate, citing a medical task force that advised the district to require mask-wearing.
“My mind is pretty made up on the way to move forward,” Carvalho told The Miami Herald on Tuesday. “And that is in full agreement with the recommendations of this task force.”
President Joe Biden directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Wednesday to use his authority to combat governors who block districts from issuing mask mandates, including potential legal action.
Biden added that if governors threaten to cut salaries for educators, funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan could make up the difference.
Public health experts invited to the Hillsborough County meeting answered questions from board members about the impact of a mask mandate. Experts agreed that masks and vaccinations were the best way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in schools, especially considering the scale of the district.
Hillsborough County Public Schools cover the Tampa Bay region and serve over 200,000 students. Parents, students, faculty members and other community members were given the opportunity to speak at the meeting.
Some who were against a mask mandate argued that the recent infections were largely contracted before the first day of school last week and that mandates infringe on the rights of parents and children. Others spread misinformation about masks, claiming they don’t stop the spread of the coronavirus, even though studies prove they are effective.
Members of the public who supported mask mandates urged the board to institute one as soon as possible, including parents who noted that their children were either too young or not medically able to be vaccinated.
“We shouldn’t be here trying to figure out how to keep our children safe. We know what to do. You’ve done it before,” said a man identified as Robert. “Enough with the politics. There’s plenty of time for that nonsense next year. Now it’s about our kids.”
Children have shown more symptoms with the delta variant than with previous strains, and they have increasingly been hospitalized in recent weeks. Children's hospitals in states that have high transmission rates have begun to battle bed shortages, NBC News reported last week.
The Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorizations for Covid vaccines for adults and children over age 12, leaving younger children more vulnerable to infection. The FDA said last month that it hopes to offer authorization for children under 12 by early to midwinter.