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Some Florida School Districts Will Require Masks. The Governor May Cut Their Funding

Students return to school at Seminole Heights Elementary in Tampa on Aug. 31, 2020, after the Florida Department of Education mandated in-class learning.
Octavio Jones
Getty Images
Students return to school at Seminole Heights Elementary in Tampa on Aug. 31, 2020, after the Florida Department of Education mandated in-class learning.

Updated August 6, 2021 at 5:00 PM ET

A battle is brewing in Florida over whether students will have to wear masks when they return to the classroom this fall.

Several Florida school districts are keeping their mask mandates in place for the upcoming school year, despite an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that leaves it up to parents to decide whether their children wear face coverings in school. School boards that don't eliminate mask mandates could face the loss of state funding.

On Friday, Florida's Board of Education further complicated matters for public schools by announcing they would provide private school vouchers for parents who see mask-wearing requirements as "harrassment" of their children.

The new rule says a public school student who is subject to "COVID-19 harassment" which can include mask and COVID testing requirements, is eligible for a Hope Scholarship, which would allow the child to transfer to a private school or a public school in a different district.

South Florida's Broward County Public Schools, the second-largest district in Florida, cited safety as its top priority announcing the decision to maintain its mask requirement pending further guidance from the state as coronavirus cases surge in Florida.

The Sunshine State has seen a rash of new COVID-19 infections in recent weeks. On Saturday, it recorded 21,683 new coronavirus cases, its highest single-day total since the pandemic began.

But DeSantis, a Republican, said that because vaccines are now prevalent, the decision to mask students should be up to their parents — not the school district.

"I want to empower parents to be able to make the best decisions they can for the well-being of their children," DeSantis said. He said parents are in the best position to evaluate "the effect that this would have on their children."

Disagreement over whether kids needs masks

DeSantis cited a study, conducted in part by Brown University researcher Emily Oster, that did not find "a correlation between mask mandates and COVID-19 rates" in schools in Florida, New York and Massachusetts. Other researchers have pointed out that the study had a big caveat: The data didnt look at whether students contracted COVID-19 in or outside of school.Oster herself has said that the data sets were collected before the spread of the hyper-transmissible delta variant, according to The Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students, staff and faculty who are not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus wear a mask indoors. Children under 12 are still not approved for the vaccine in the United States.

"When it comes to safety, we know that adherence to the mitigation strategies works," U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a recent interview with NPR.

"I know that there are some folks making decisions that are less based on science and more on their ideology. But at the end of the day, our educators, their job is to make sure our students are OK," he added.

The fight unfolding in Florida

The executive order does not prohibit mask mandates outright, but it gives parents the final say as to whether their child would have to wear a face covering in school. No children would be prohibited from wearing a mask if they chose to.

"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," DeSantis' press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said in a statement.

"[I]t has to be the parent's free choice. Requiring medical documentation to opt out of the mask mandate, for example, would violate the spirit of the EO," she added.

The executive order says Florida could withhold public funds from "noncompliant school boards" that violate the new requirement.

Duval County announced on Thursday that it will require any student not wearing a mask indoors to opt out of the district's policy. Officials in Alachua County voted to require students to wear face coverings for the first two weeks of school.

"We applaud the school boards of Alachua and Duval counties for following the advice of doctors in their community," said the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "We believe every county should be empowered to make decisions on how best to keep their students safe in consultation with local health experts and based on the unique needs and circumstances in their area."

Orange County schools will mandate masks for staff — but not students — for 30 days.

In a letter to DeSantis, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said he wanted to impose a temporary mask mandate in grades pre-K through 8 to protect students and staff against the delta variant, which is spreading quickly across the country and in Florida. Leon County includes Tallahassee, the state capital.

"I'm asking you to allow us the flexibility and the autonomy to make the decisions for our schools that best fit our local data and information in Leon County," Hanna said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.