Some school districts sold on strict mask mandates are now softening their policies

By: - October 19, 2021 7:00 am

School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers

Whether it’s a decline in COVID-19 cases, the ability to vaccinate students as young as 12 or intense pressure from state officials, tough mask mandates are softening in some public school districts in Florida.

As for the eight school districts under scrutiny for months over strict mask mandates, even some of those districts have made changes.

Alachua County, in the Gainesville area, was one of the first districts that stood firm on mandating masks at schools, despite heavy criticism from the DeSantis administration and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. At issue was that the district would not allow students to opt out of wearing masks unless there was a medical concern.

But nowadays, Alachua has stepped back a bit.

The school district, a trailblazer in the conflict between the executive branch and local school boards, will now allow parents of high school students to waive masks for teens by signing a form. That begins Tuesday.

However, the mask mandate for kindergarten through 8th grade remains in place, meaning the district is still in trouble with the state and faces financial sanctions for keeping a strict mask mandate in those grades.

Jackie Johnson, communications staffer for the district, said school officials made the change following current COVID-19 trends in the area and took into consideration that students 12 and older could get the vaccines.

The Leon County School District, in the state capital, recently decided to allow all students to be able to opt out from the district’s mask requirement, starting Tuesday, according to the website. “For parents who want to opt their PreK-12th grade student(s) out of the mask requirement due to health concerns or individual freedoms, they will need to submit a parent mask opt-out form.”

However, Commissioner Corcoran still finds the Leon district to be out of compliance with state law and policies.

“While the district has a policy that allows a parent or legal guardian of a student to opt the student out of wearing a face covering or mask at the parent or legal guardian’s sole discretion,” Corcoran said in a letter to the district Friday, “…this policy does not apply when an asymptomatic student returns to a district school during the seven-day quarantine period. During this period, your policy states that a student must wear a mask while indoors, ‘regardless of medical or parental opt-out.'”

Therefore, the district is still facing sanctions state education officials, Corcoran says in the letter. Spokesman Chris Petley said Leon School Supt. Rocky Hanna discussed the potential consequences for its policy, but pursued the change anyway.

The Brevard County School District, on the Atlantic Coast, made a slight revision to its mask policy, according to the district website, allowing parents to opt their child out of the mask policy when the county reaches 50 COVID cases per 100,000 population, based on weekly Florida Department of Health data.

The most recent report from the Department of Health, released Friday, shows that Brevard County has about 60.5 cases per 100,000 population, meaning there is a mask mandate in place.

Meanwhile, some districts have stuck with their mask mandates, according to local news outlets and district websites. That would include the districts of Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach. Those strict mandates were designed to protect children and staff from COVID-19.

Overall, the eight districts that had been scrutinized still face financial penalties.

Florida’s State Board of Education agreed to punish the districts by targeting school board salaries, and withholding additional funds equal to any federal assistance a district may receive to backfill those funds.

That’s a reference to a new federal grant called Project SAFE, established by the Biden administration, that intends to financially support school boards that implement COVID prevention methods recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, but have been penalized for doing so.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.