Thrilled to return to school after last year’s quarantine, South Florida’s kids are putting on their masks each morning and forgetting about them for most of the day.

Meanwhile, the adults quarrel: the governor with school boards, anti-mask parents with school officials, pro-mask parents with state officials they have taken to court for saying masks must be optional.

The kids say they don’t understand the commotion.

“I forget it’s on my face,” said Joel Bender, 13, an eighth grader at Indian Ridge Middle School in Davie. “Everyone’s wearing it. If it slides off, they put it back on. It’s stupid to protest.”

Jerry O’Donnell, a science teacher at Eagles Landing Middle School west of Boca Raton, agreed that the kids are doing fine: He has had “100% compliance” with mask wearing this year.

“They see us wearing it, so they wear it,” O’Donnell said.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 57% of parents of K-12 children favor mask mandates for unvaccinated students. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports universal masking for everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated, in schools.

Virus Outbreak Florida Schools

Christy Pavlish, left, and Lauren Birkins display signs as they cross the street during a protest outside a Broward County School Board meeting, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

“It’s a little bit uncomfortable, but I see it as a small price to pay,” said Gabriela Carvajal, a senior at Everglades High in Miramar. “The vast majority are complying. It’s like a collective agreement to keep each other safe.”

Still, masks have become an enormous point of contention, especially in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is fighting 10 school districts, including Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, over their mask requirements. DeSantis signed an order July 30 that said parents should have a choice about whether their children wear face coverings at school.

A vocal contingent continues to voice displeasure with South Florida schools’ decision to defy the governor. Karen Ammar, mother of a sixth grader who attends Beachside Montessori Village in Hollywood, opposes mandatory masking but said she did not try to opt out her son because “he has been indoctrinated to believe that he is hurting others when not wearing a mask.”

“My biggest concern is that our children are suffering from their parents’ fear, and that it will affect them long term,” Ammar said in response to a Sun-Sentinel survey about the return to school this year. “I believe our children should be allowed to decide whether they wear masks or not. The whole mentality that we must protect the weakest amongst us, whether we are talking about peanut allergies or COVID, weakens us as a nation.”

Michael Ross, father of an eighth grader at Omni Middle School in Boca Raton, argues that the school districts’ COVID strategies are not scientifically based and opted his son out of wearing a mask until the Palm Beach County school district no longer allowed exemptions. Now his son complies with the requirement.

“He just wears it,” Ross said. “He’s not a rebel.”

Studies show that masks prevent the respiratory droplets that spread COVID-19 from moving through the air and reaching other people.

“It is especially important to wear a mask when you are indoors with people you do not live with and when you are unable to stay at least 6 feet apart since COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schools could become an easy spreader site if kids have no protections. Children and teens speak animatedly in close proximity and are packed into corridors during class changes.

“We are shoulder to shoulder in the hallways,” said Claire Freedman, 13, an eighth grader at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton.

That’s one of the reasons to keep the mask mandate going, said Dr. Renato Berger, a pediatrician in Coconut Creek. Despite the difficulty of social distancing, he said it’s essential for kids to be in school buildings this year. He said he had 10 patients last year who became suicidal, and he attributes their troubles to the isolation they felt during homeschooling.

“Staying home is not good for them,” Berger said. “The only solution is the mask. The kids have no problem with the mask. They will imitate what the parents do.”

Learning at home last year was “horrible,” agreed Luke Bartels, 7, a second grader at Cooper City Elementary.

“Wearing a mask is not annoying at all,” he said.

Still, parents have been requesting opt-outs from the mandates, even though the only permissible exemptions are for medical and special needs in Broward and for the disabled in Palm Beach.

Palm Beach Pediatric Group in Boynton Beach warned parents recently its doctors will not write any mask exemptions.

“Our providers have studied peer-reviewed scientific data and do not feel there is any medical condition that qualifies our patient population for a medically necessary mask exemption,” the office posted on Facebook. “Our practice policy is to not write or prescribe exemptions from this mask mandate, including in the school setting.”

Although mask compliance appears to be almost total, Western High senior Josh DeCapua said he gets a kick out of his peers who allow their masks to fall below their noses as a sign of defiance or nonchalance.

“It’s kind of comedic,” he said. “They’ll take it down behind the teacher’s back and then be told to put it back. It does get sweaty, but otherwise it doesn’t affect me in any way.”


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