Hillsborough County School Board member Nadia Combs said a mask mandate is the district’s best shot at safely keeping schools open. Screenshot: HillsboroughSchools.TV
Amid skyrocketing Delta-driven COVID-19 infections, two of Florida’s largest school districts on Wednesday joined with two other districts in defying a state executive order and imposing mask mandates in public schools without a parental opt-out.
The Miami-Dade school board voted, 7-1, for a temporary mask mandate for students, faculty and all visitors, allowing students to opt out only for a medical reason. One board member was absent.
The Hillsborough County board voted, 5-2, after nearly five hours of debate to require masks for 30 days, starting Thursday, for students, faculty, and staff with exceptions only for those with documentation of medical necessity.
Citing a 20 percent COVID transmission rate in Hillsborough County and the fact that more than 10,000 students are in quarantine or isolation due to COVID infections or direct exposures, the board agreed to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order and state administrative rules and risk losing funding controlled by the state.
They did so knowing that the state Board of Education voted late Tuesday to sanction school districts in Alachua and Broward counties for doing the same, in violation of DeSantis’ order to leave masks optional at parents’ discretion.
However, President Joe Biden has been supportive of mask mandates and announced Wednesday that his administration would push back against Republican governors, like DeSantis, who try to block them, in court if necessary.
Hillsborough board member Nadia Combs made the motion for the new mandate, arguing that she sees masks as the district’s best hope for keeping schools open. She added that local hospitals and health professional are straining to meet medical needs, requiring communities to do all they can to reduce viral spread.
“COVID is going to be here in five years, 10 years. We’re going to have to learn to live with COVID. But right now, I think it’s really important to mask our children for 30 days and our faculty and staff,” Combs said in a televised emergency session.
“Children have returned back to school because they want to be there. I am not going to close this district or this organization. That is not what I’m going to do. If it requires children to wear masks for 30 days so we can go past the peak, that is what I’m asking for,” she said.
She and others noted that just 14 percent of parents had opted out under Hillsborough’s former policy, suggesting that the vast majority of families support masking requirements.
The district’s newly reconfigured COVID dashboard shows 2,013 COVID diagnoses and 10,722 students and staff off campus sitting out infections or exposures. That includes 519 teachers, bus drivers, food-service workers and other employees.
Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, wrote to the school board before the emergency session saying that the district can count on federal assistance if it suffers state retribution for its vote.
“I wanted to let you know that I spoke this morning to U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum, regarding the threats from the governor and commissioner of education to withhold funds and penalize school districts that enact important health and safety protocols (including masks as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC) to keep children and educators safe during the pandemic,” Castor wrote.
“He reiterated to me that U.S. DOE will stand with educators and school districts that are working to ensure safe in-person instruction. This includes addressing any retribution by the governor or State Board of Education such as monetary penalties, through the use of federal emergency aid funds. “
In Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest school district, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he takes pride in the board’s decision.
“For the consequences associated with doing the right thing — whatever that right thing is — I will wear proudly as a badge of honor,” Carvalho told members of the state board.
About 90 minutes of public comments preceded the vote in Miami-Dade, with some seeking a mask mandate and others telling the board to follow the law and protect parents’ right to choose whether their children should wear a mask.
The lone ‘no’ vote was from board member Lubby Navarro, who said, “It would be shameful to put our school district before DOE and our superintendent on the stand … having to defend why we were breaking the law.”
She was referring to the two districts are already in hot water with the state Board of Education due to current mask policies, Alachua and Broward, which have mask mandates that allow parents to opt out their kids for a medical reason.
The Hillsborough and Miami-Dade school boards heard hours of public comments that ranged from physicians citing medical evidence in support of masks to parents accusing board members of criminal behavior and power-grabbing for nefarious purposes.
Dr. Crystal Jacovino, an endocrinologist and internal medicine physician, testified that she represented more than 200 Tampa Bay physicians who endorse mask mandates and she cited pediatric masking recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatricians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’ve come to ask you to put back the mask mandate,” Jacovino said, citing Hillsborough’s mask mandate last school year, which did not grant parental discretion. She said people arguing for “freedom” from mask mandates might feel differently if they saw some of the COVID-sick teen-agers suffering in local hospitals.
“You don’t know about the 17-year-old prone, sedated, intubated on 100% FiO2 [mechanical breathing],” she said. “You don’t know about the 16-year-old in ICU on high flow [oxygen].”
Rebutting that was Barbara Mortensen, who said she is a retired nurse with four grandchildren.
“Masking children is child abuse,” she said. “Cloth face diapers are far more dangerous than the COVID virus is for our children.”
Cheers could be heard outside the hearing room as speakers opposing mask mandates exited after speaking.
One speaker who implored the board to adopt a mask mandate said she was heckled as she entered the room wearing a face mask.
Struggle between duty to protect health and parental rights?
The DeSantis administration insists, despite medical advice to the contrary, that parents must be free to direct the “upbringing, education, and health care” of their students, including refusing for any reason to have their children wear face masks at school. His position is enforced by an executive order and an emergency rule from the Department of Health, citing the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights.
In an emergency meeting Tuesday, the State Board of Education directed Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to investigate whether Alachua’s and Broward’s school districts have violated Florida law.
A finding that they have could result in penalties such as cutting salaries of superintendents and school board members and even removing elected officials there from office. The school superintendents from Alachua and Broward testified that they are not violating the law because the Department of Health’s emergency rule allows for an opt-out without specifying that it must be at parental discretion versus being medically necessary.
Responding to questions at a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis insisted these districts are breaking the law.
“Forcing young kids to wear masks all day, these kindergarteners, having the government enforce that — that’s not defying me. That’s defying the state of Florida’s laws and the Parents’ Bill of Rights that was enacted just this past legislative session that I signed into law,” the governor said.
He continued: “These emergency orders implement the law that the Legislature passed.”
DeSantis coincidentally filled a vacancy on Alachua’s School Board, according to a Wednesday press release. He declared the seat vacant on June 17 through an executive order citing the former school board member as not living in the district she was elected to represent.
Filling the vacancy is Mildred Russell, who, according to the press release, started Miracle Life Ministries with her husband, Rusty Russell. She worked with the Alachua Republican Party and served as a state committeewoman for the Alachua County Republicans for 10 years, before stepping down in 2016, according to the local party website.
Also this week, the Lee County School Board voted Tuesday to comply with the governor’s order and allow parents to opt out of the district’s masking requirement.
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