Not all mask mandates are equal: 10 Florida school districts have varied approaches

By: - August 26, 2021 4:34 pm

Photo of schoolchildren, Reopening Miami-Dade County schools. Credit: Miami-Dade County Public Schools website.

In a statewide conflict over school mask policies, 10 school districts are defying state orders by mandating masks for students.

But not every district has the same mandates. Not all students in a district need to mask. And some grades have different rules when it comes to masking.

Overall, the mask environment in Florida’s public schools has nuances and the 10 districts highlight the varied approaches.

At issue are state emergency rules and laws that grant parents the right to direct the upbringing and health care of their child, including whether their student should wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic as cases surge in Florida. An emergency Department of Health rule states that schools must allow parents to opt out.

The 10 districts, including most of Florida’s largest, are bucking the state policies and implementing their own. Opt outs are limited only to medical reasons.

The 10 districts collectively oversee about 1.45 million students, according to data from the state Department of Education. The data is from spring 2021.

All 10 districts have some version of a medical opt-out for the mask mandate which would apply to students with medical needs or sensory issues who have a hard time wearing a mask.

These students either need a note from a licensed physician, a note from a psychologist, or other documentation for students with disabilities, to opt out of the mask requirement, depending on the district, according to the local school board policies.

Two school boards, Leon, in the state capital, and Indian River, on the Atlantic Coast, voted to only mandate that students in PreK through 8th grades would be under a mask requirement.

The school board of Indian River County voted 3-2 Tuesday in favor of the more strict mandate, which will officially start on Aug. 30 and run for two weeks. The district will only require Pre-K through 8th grade students to wear a mask. High school students in the district are not required to wear a mask.

Indian River County school district communications staffer Cristen Maddux said that the school board chose to leave out high school students from the mask mandate because high schoolers have access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Middle schoolers who are 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer COVID vaccine, but Maddux said that district put all middle school students under the same mask mandate.

“It just makes sense when they’re grouped that way,” Maddux told the Phoenix.

“Sixth, seventh, and eighth — they go to the same school. So it really wouldn’t make sense to have sixth graders required to wear masks then seventh and eighth not required to wear masks,” she said. “Even patrolling it to make sure the correct students were wearing masks when others were not… it would be very difficult for teachers and administration.”

In the spring of 2021, there were almost 12,000 PreK through 8th grade students enrolled in Indian River County schools, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

Chris Petley, communications staffer for the Leon district, provided a similar answer for why the district went for a mask mandate with a medical opt out for only PreK through eighth grade, saying that students in younger grades do not have access to COVID vaccines while students in older grades do.

There were more than 23,200 PreK through 8th  grade students enrolled in Leon County schools, according to the 2021 spring enrollment data.

High school students in Leon County are still expected to wear a mask, unless a parent signs an opt out form for their kid.

The Alachua County School District, based in Gainesville, was one of the first districts to defy state policies and implement a mask mandate with only documented medical exemptions. However, their mask policy provides a bit of compassion for its very young students.

“Children in kindergarten and below will be educated, encouraged and expected to wear face coverings, but failure to wear a face covering will not prohibit their attendance if they are unable to wear a face covering at all times,” according to the Alachua school board’s mask policy. Alachua serves some 28,600 students, according to spring enrollment data.

Some of Florida’s largest school districts have mandated masks for all students spanning from PreK through 12th grade.

Orange County recently approved a mask mandate that only allows medical opt-outs and the mandate includes PreK through 12th grades, according to the district’s Twitter account. About 202,000 students were enrolled in Orange County schools, according to enrollment data from spring 2021.

The Miami-Dade County school district, which serves more than 333,000 students, says that “students and children over the age of two are expected to come to school each day with their facial covering,” according to the district website on Aug. 20.

The Broward County School District also requires masks for students and says that a face covering will not be required for children aged 2 or younger. Thar school district served almost 260,000 students in spring 2021.

Four school districts mask policies indicate that “all students” would be subjected to a mask mandate: Hillsborough, Palm Beach County, Duval County and Sarasota County.  The Phoenix reached out for clarity on whether that includes PreK students for these districts, and is awaiting a response.

Assuming that “all students,” including PreK, these mask mandates cover about 189,000 students in Palm Beach County, nearly 43,000 students in Sarasota County, and 220,000 students in Hillsborough County.

The mask mandate in Duval does not start until Sept. 7. When Duval’s mask policy activates, it will cover about 127,000 students, if PreK is included.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.