More than half of Florida’s students are now enrolled in public school districts with mask mandates despite threats of sanctions from the administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who decreed that only parents can decide whether their children wear masks.

On Tuesday night, two school districts – in Orange and Indian River counties – approved mandates to try to stop the spread of the delta variant of the novel coronavirus. They joined eight other districts that recently moved to require a medical exemption from a doctor to opt out.

The state is a hotspot for COVID-19 cases, with a positivity rate for new cases at nearly 20% as hospitals keep filling with patients.

Two of the 10 districts that voted for strict mandates – Indian River and Sarasota – supported Donald Trump for president in 2020. DeSantis is counting on voters in these districts for support in his bid for reelection next year. The others – Miami-Dade County, Broward, Hillsborough, Leon, Alachua, Palm Beach, Orange and Duval – supported Joe Biden.

According to Florida Department of Education enrollment tallies for 2020-21, combined student enrollment in those 10 counties is about 52% of total enrollment. There were 2,791,687 students enrolled in that year, and the combined enrollment exceeds 1.45 million.

Since DeSantis’s July 30 executive order, districts have watched COVID-19 cases rise, including among young people. On Monday, officials in Orange County said children 5 to 14 years old accounted for the majority of new cases, according to Bay News 9.


Orange County Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins told the school board Tuesday night that the district was changing its masking policy for staff and students by eliminating the parental opt-out and allowing only medical exemptions for at least 60 days.

Also Tuesday night, the school board of the Indian River County school district voted 3-2 for a temporary K-8 mask mandate requiring a medical exemption. “It seems to me, in my view, I’d rather be safe than sorry,” school board Chairman Brian Barefoot said.

He also said the future of the mask mandate will be clearer over the next few weeks when more is learned about the spread of the delta variant and about an expected ruling by a Leon County court judge who is hearing a lawsuit challenging DeSantis’s order. Other lawsuits have been filed against the order as well.

State officials have repeatedly threatened to withhold the pay – or remove – school board members who have voted for mandates. Under the Florida Constitution, the governor can suspend elected officials. DeSantis would have to move against several dozen board members at this point if he opted to do that.

State officials have already started to move against the first two districts that approved tough mask mandates – Alachua and Broward – seeking compensation records for school board members who voted for the mandates. The state’s Board of Education is expected to move against others in the same way this week.

The DeSantis administration says these districts are violating Florida law by imposing these mandates, which violate the governor’s order. Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email: “Nobody is above the law, not even school board politicians.”


She also said: “There is no empirical evidence to support the assertion that the benefits of forced masking of schoolchildren outweigh the potential harms. Masking kids under 12 is not recommended in many EU countries, because their health authorities have found that the risks are not well understood – and the data shows that forced masking of young children has a negligible impact on covid prevalence and spread.”

Public health experts dispute this, saying that masking is an essential tool to help stop the spread of delta in schools, along with vaccinations, and that there is no evidence that children are harmed by wearing masks in school.

Nipunie Rajapakse, a doctor and an expert on pediatric infectious diseases at the Mayor Clinic, said: “Because of the concerns that have been raised about whether there are any negative effects of masking on children, there have been now numerous studies done. These studies have unequivocally shown that there are no negative health effects on children from wearing a mask.”


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