Teacher with students, in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.
Florida schoolchildren are nearing the end of an entire school year under the impacts of COVID-19, and administrators are planning for the next academic year.
But what’s in store for 2021-22 could become a divisive dilemma over whether kids, teachers and staff should continue wearing masks.
Already, school districts and families of schoolchildren are divided: Will masks be necessary or even mandated in the upcoming school year?
With an uncertain outlook of COVID-19 and political connotations surrounding masks, classrooms could become a checkerboard, with some students wearing masks but others showing their faces.
Parents and districts will have to decide if masks are a necessary part of school life.
Florida Education Commissioner weighs in
The debate around masks and their effectiveness has been a reality since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but a recent letter from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran breathed new life into the conversation again.
In a letter sent to district superintendents earlier this week, Corcoran asked that Florida school districts reconsider their mask guidelines if they currently mandate masks in schools.
Corcoran wants districts that currently have a mask mandate to switch to a voluntary mask policy for 2021-22.
Masks “serve no remaining good at this point in our schools,” Corcoran’s letter states.
But the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently recommending that schoolchildren, educators and staff continue to mask up in schools when social distancing is not possible. If social distancing can be done — meaning six feet apart between others — students and staff may consider using masks.
Because some districts are looking to CDC guidance but others aren’t, Corcoran’s letter is getting mixed reviews among Florida’s 67 school districts.
Some districts say it’s time to move on from masks. In fact, some districts have already ditched their mask mandates.
That’s the case for Franklin County schools in the Panhandle, where Superintendent Steve Lanier told the Phoenix that the district has recently removed its mask mandate and kind of “jumped the gun,” referring to Corcoran’s letter.
“I just think it was time to get back to being as normal as possible,” he said, noting that access to the vaccine and the county’s relatively low number of COVID cases helped form that decision.
Lanier also said that time spent enforcing masks on students took time away from the classroom when students are not compliant.
“What are the teachers’ options? To write a referral and send them up to the principal’s office,” he told the Phoenix. “We spent more time trying to ensure that the mask policy was followed – and some of these kids won’t do it.”
And folks in Franklin County schools are taking advantage of the lack of mask mandate. Lanier said that a majority of staff and students are not wearing masks since the mandate was lifted in his district.
He gave the Phoenix his best guess at the makeup of people in schools wearing masks:
“Right now, I say probably 40 percent of the bus drivers are still wearing them, probably less than 10 percent of students and less than 5 percent of teachers (wearing masks),” Lanier said. With the lift on mask mandates still new for Franklin County, Lanier said that if cases were to spike, that the district would “absolutely” consider reinstating the mask mandate.
Some districts never had a mask mandate. Superintendent Joseph Taylor of Washington County, also in the Panhandle, told the Phoenix that his district never made masks mandatory, and a majority of students and teachers do not where them.
“When you start mandating something you run into issues with enforcement,” he told the Phoenix about the decision.
Taylor said that while the district references the CDC when deciding how to implement COVID protocols, they also consider guidance provided by the Florida Department of Education and health departments. The Department of Education does not have a statewide mask mandate. Nor does the state of Florida as a whole, with Gov. Ron DeSantis refusing to require a mask mandate.
The CDC or Florida’s department of education?
Others educators question Corcoran’s letter to superintendents, raising alarm bells.
The letter states that “data shows us that districts’ face covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus.” That phrase does not provide or reference data to support that claim.
Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna told the Tallahassee Democrat that the county will continue to follow CDC guidelines, which currently recommends that masks be worn by all in schools when social distancing is not possible.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat: “‘It’s a heretical statement that should be immediately recanted,’ Hanna said. ‘He’s (Corcoran) not qualified to make that statement, just like I’m not qualified to make that statement.'”
Meanwhile, some districts are pondering what to do.
WTSP, a news source for the Tampa Bay area, reported that the Pasco County School District is looking to transition to masks being optional in the fall.
The Herald-Tribune reported that Sarasota County’s school board also is considering whether masks will be necessary come next academic year.
Other districts are waiting for more information before making a final decision.
Christina Langston, a spokeswoman for St. Johns County School District, told the Phoenix that while her district still has a mask mandate in place, administrators have not yet made a decision on what to do about the 2021-22 school year regarding masks.
She told the Phoenix that St. John’s has “followed the CDC guidelines very closely” and that they will work with local health departments and the school board to come to a final decision on the matter. Langston said that suggestions from Corcoran’s letter will also be considered.
At this time, Corcoran isn’t forcing decisions about masks in school districts, but he hasn’t been shy in the past about stepping over local boards.
In a controversial emergency order last summer, Corcoran forced school districts to reopen schools for the fall, or otherwise risk losing state funding.
The issue led to a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association, which argued that Corcoran was overstepping local boards under the state Constitution. The suit was ultimately dropped.
Corcoran also intervened when school districts were not opening quickly enough, such as the school district in Miami-Dade. He sent a letter to that district strongly suggesting they reopen sooner or risk funding.
So it’s likely that the debate will continue over masks, on or off, in Florida’s schools for the next few months heading into 2021-22.
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