Half of Florida’s 2.8m public school students now face mask mandates

• Orange county changes stance after surge in Covid-19 cases

• School boards defy Governor Ron DeSantis’s ban

Just over half of Florida’s 2.8 million public school students are now required to wear masks in classrooms as a courtroom battle continues over efforts by Governor Ron DeSantis to leave such decisions up to parents.

A majority of school board members in Orange county told the superintendent on Tuesday to require most students to wear masks, and agreed with her recommendation to keep the mandate through 30 October.

The district began its school year this month with a parental opt-out, but a surge in students across the Orlando area testing positive for Covid-19 has disrupted classes. Through Tuesday, the district reported 1,968 positive cases among students since school began, with 1,491 people under active quarantine, according to the district’s dashboard.

At least 10 school boards making up some of the largest districts in Florida are now defying the DeSantis administration’s attempt to ban local mandates on masks in schools. The Orange county board also said they want to challenge the legality of a Florida department of health rule enforcing the ban.

In Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, the Broward county school board told the department of education that it would not back down on its mask policy, which gives parents a medical opt-out for students. The board said it believed that complied with the governor’s order and the department’s mask rule.

Parents, the board said, do not have an unlimited right to send their kids to school unmasked, infringing on the rights of other parents who want their children to be safe.

DeSantis is not backing down. During a press conference in The Villages on Wednesday, the governor warned there would be additional consequences for school districts, but did not elaborate. DeSantis contends the defiant school boards are violating the Parents Bill of Rights, signed into law this summer, which gives parents authority to direct their children’s education.

“Those schools districts are violating state law and they are overriding what the parents’ judgment is on this,” he said, saying that cloth masks do not prevent the spread of aerosols. (The CDC has recommended fabric masks as a safe way to protect oneself against the coronavirus.)

The state had given Broward and Alachua counties until Tuesday to end their mask mandates. Broward’s students began school a week ago with a mask policy in place. State officials have threatened to withhold funding equal to school board salaries if a district does not comply. Those funds make up less than 1% of each district’s budget.

The debate over masks has become heated across the state.

On Wednesday morning, police said the father of a student who tried to enter Fort Lauderdale high school without a mask was arrested after he forcefully pushed another student who tried to grab his cellphone. A police report said the father was videoing students at the school’s front gate and the student did not want to be filmed.

The father was charged with one count of aggravated child abuse.

School board members from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties held a virtual news conference on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of suing DeSantis and the state. All three said they had received online threats over the mask issue.

“We will not be pressured by the governor or the state board of education when the safety and health of our students is involved. We have a constitutional duty to protect our students,” said Lucia Baez-Geller, a Miami-Dade school board member.

In Tallahassee on Wednesday, a three-day hearing that pits pro-mask parents against the DeSantis administration and state education officials was wrapping up, with a ruling by a judge expected soon.

Dr Jay Battacharya, a Stanford University medical professor and researcher who also supports the governor’s approach, said he typically masked up only when required to, or to make others feel at ease – not because he believes they prevent coronavirus exposure.

“I don’t believe there is high-quality evidence to show masks are effective in stopping disease spread,” he testified on Wednesday.

Asked what an acceptable death rate for children would be to justify continuing a strict mask ban, Battacharya said it was an incorrect way of measuring the outcome. “I don’t think it’s right to say what are acceptable deaths. Compared to what? It’s a question of trade-offs,” he said.

The highly contagious Delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms this month. By mid-August more than 21,000 new cases were being added each day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. However, new cases and hospitalizations have leveled off over the past week.

There were 16,820 people being treated for the disease in Florida hospitals on Tuesday, US health department figures showed, down from a record high above 17,000 last week.

About six in 10 Americans say students and teachers should be required to wear face masks while in school, according to a poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Guardian staff and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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