At least two school districts — Volusia and Lee — that previously adopted strict mask mandates have recently decided to allow parents to opt their students out of the policy for any reason.
Another district, Indian River, has approved a change — a hybrid approach that would require masks only at certain times when COVID-19 surges in isolated schools, according to news accounts.
The policy turnarounds follow a recent court win for state education officials and the DeSantis administration and concerns about certain local boards potentially losing pay because of mask policies that do not include a parental opt-out. Earlier, those districts adopted a medical opt-out only, if families wanted to forego mask-wearing for their children at school.
Overall, 12 districts and a lab school had implemented strict mask mandates, defying the DeSantis administration, but now the figure appears to have has fallen to 10 districts.
In southwest Florida’s Lee County schools, a letter from Lee County Superintendent Ken Savage sent to parents noted that the policy change was a result of the court’s decision on mask mandates. That was the First District Court of Appeal case last week, which allowed the DeSantis administration and state education officials to continue enforcing a contentious policy for parents to opt their child out of a mask mandate while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“Therefore, starting on Tuesday, September 14, The School District of Lee County will require face coverings, while allowing parents to opt-out without a medical exemption,” the letter reads.
“Given the legal landscape, I am appealing to your humanity and sense of community,” Savage said in the letter.
He continued: “I implore you to prove your commitment to each other by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and following other safety protocols to help us get through this surge together.”
Tuesday evening, the Volusia County School Board, on the Atlantic coast, also discussed the impact of the court’s decision before voting to adopt a mask policy that allows a parental opt-out. In he past, the district used a medical opt-out.
The mask policy changes follow a long legal battle over constitutional questions and who has control of public schools — local boards or the executive branch.
Some districts are not sure how the court’s decision will impact their own strict mask policies, and other districts — Alachua and Broward — have already experienced financial sanctions for not complying with state education officials.
Russell Bruhn, a communications staffer for Brevard County schools near Volusia, said that while the district’s strict mask policy remains in place, it will be under consideration at the next school board meeting Tuesday. [Flagler County schools have not had a mandatory mask policy this year. The school board on Aug. 17 voted 3-2 against instituting a no-opt-out policy, sticking with voluntary masking.]
“It expires at the end of the month unless they (the school board) decide to do something about it,” he told the Phoenix.
He said that the Brevard school board could vote to extend the policy, vote to end it early, or keep it as is and let it expire as originally planned.
Elsewhere, communication staffer Jackie Johnson of Alachua County schools, told the Phoenix in an email that the district is not planning to make any changes to its strict mask policy at this time. The state docked pay from the school board because of its mask mandate that only provides a medical opt-out.
The state also has docked pay from Broward County’s school board, but officials told the Phoenix that its strict mask policy remains in place at this time.
Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange and Sarasota school districts also have confirmed with the Phoenix that there are no current plans to change their strict mask policies, despite the latest court decision.
The Phoenix also reached out to Palm Beach to see how the court decision impacted its mask policy and is awaiting response. Previous communications with Leon County schools indicate that Leon will continue its strict mask mandate.
–Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix