As three Florida schools and scores of classrooms around the state were shut down by COVID last week, a sixth school district imposed a mask mandate against vitriolic opposition from parents and the prospect of sanctions from the governor and state education officials.
The Florida Education Association COVID tracker said that, as of Saturday, 21 classrooms in Lee County had been shut down, along with classrooms in Glades and Duval and one school each in the Charlotte, Hernando, and Brevard school districts.
The educators’ union reported that 19 school employees have died of COVID since Aug. 1.
The Sarasota County School Board voted, 3-2, late Friday to impose a 90-day mask mandate for students, employees, and visitors, citing a soaring positivity rate in locals tested for COVID-19, ovewhelmed local hospitals, and the district’s struggle to conduct sufficient school-based testing and contact tracing.
[In Flagler County, an attempt to pass a similar measure failed on a 3-2 vote at a meeting of the Flagler County School Board Tuesday. Board member Colleen Conklin motioned for a mandate and was seconded by Cheryl Massaro. Members Trevor Tucker, Jill Woolbright and Janet McDonald voted against. AdventHealth Palm Coast faces a similar crisis, with around 90 beds occupied by patients on a primary diagnosis of covid. The hospital is licensed for 132 beds.]
Just hours earlier on Aug. 20, the state Board of Education had ordered Alachua and Broward County school board members stripped of their salaries for adopting all-school mask mandates with exceptions only for documented medical reasons, in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning districts from issuing such mandates.
Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach school districts adopted all-school masking mandates last week but have not yet been called before the state board. The Orange County School Board signaled Thursday during a workshop that it may soon impose an all-school masking mandate, too.
School districts in Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Palm Beach are the state’s largest. Sarasota is the first Republican-majority county to defy the governor’s anti-mask order, which reserves mask-wearing decisions for parents regardless of a school district’s level of COVID infections.
The public health department in Sarasota County reported COVID the test positivity rate there had spiked from 14 percent on Tuesday to 23 percent Friday.
An unruly anti-mask crowd heckled the board members, cited conspiracy theories, prayed aloud at the podium, and occasionally shouted obscenities. They insisted that face masks are dangerous, that medical and government authorities are lying about COVID, and that any mask mandate for students violates their parental rights.
Five times, chairwoman Shirley Brown recessed the emergency session to clear out hecklers who ignored warnings to be quiet while others had the floor. Eventually, security officers cleared the room and allowed the session to resume with just one speaker at the podium at a time.
Brown, board member Jane Goodwin, and board member Tom Edwards voted for a temporary, all-school mask mandate with an automatic suspension if the county’s COVID rates fall to 8 percent for three straight days. The board also considered requiring masks for staff only and segregating masked and unmasked students to accommodate the disparate wishes of clashing parents.
Board member Bridget Ziegler, an organizer of the anti-mask group Moms For Liberty, voted against a mandate of any kind. Ziegler participated in the meeting remotely via Zoom, but Moms For Liberty members were there in force. Several audience members, some wearing “This Is Child Abuse” stickers on their shirts, shouted at the board members, calling them liars and tyrants, and at least one shouted “Heil, Hitler.” Parents in favor of the mask mandate mostly commented remotely.
Physician Manuel Gordillo, an infectious-disease specialist with Sarasota Memorial Hospital, sent a memo to the school board ahead of Friday’s meeting warning that the hospital is having trouble keeping up and that the opening of schools may have exacerbated the overload.
Gordillo described the situation this way: “A public health crisis leading to health care delivery crisis like we have never seen before” — with “no signs of slowing down.”
During a news conference in Lakeland on Saturday, while promoting monoclonal antibodies therapy to treat active COVID infections, Gov. DeSantis condemned the six school boards for defying his executive order and a new law called the Parental Bill of Rights, adopted by the Florida Legislature in the spring.
“They are absolutely thumbing their nose at what the law in the state of Florida is,” the governor said Saturday.
“When you look at kids who are 5 and 6 years old, to force them to wear masks all day — there are a lot of parents who don’t think that’s the right decision,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend universal indoor masking by all students aged 2 and older, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, mainly to protect others from a person who may unknowingly be infected and contagious. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends masking in schools.
–Laura Cassels and Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix