Florida school districts weigh an end to mask mandates
By Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE — Some Florida school districts are weighing an end to mask mandates as the state loosens pandemic-related restrictions and thousands of children plan a return to classrooms.
The deliberation is the latest divide in a widening political chasm over masks. In Indian River County, where President Donald Trump won nearly 61 percent of the vote in 2016, school board members on Tuesday were evaluating a proposal to make face coverings optional in classrooms.
Across the state in Pinellas County, where Trump‘s margin of victory was only 5,500 votes, the school board earlier on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a proposal to extend indefinitely a mask requirement for students and teachers.
While the mask debate is reignited, school districts say they expect more online students to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms, a migration that will put a premium on space for social distancing and make mask-wearing more crucial, teachers and public health experts say. About half of Florida’s 67 counties included a mask mandate in their school reopening plans, according to data from the University of Florida’s Education Policy Center.
In Indian River, which includes Vero Beach, parents and residents rallied against masks at the beginning of the school year. The school board was scheduled to vote late Tuesday on a proposal that would make masks optional on campuses.
With droves of students set to rejoin their classmates in the coming weeks, community members and teachers said it‘s too soon to start undoing coronavirus safety measures.
Some parents, though, pushed back, calling mask mandates government overreach and echoing arguments from the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“The idea that this school board would deny parents the right to make health care decisions for their minor child … is concerning,” board member Tiffany Justice said at Tuesday’s meeting, which was packed with teachers and parents and had overflow rooms for people waiting to make public comments. The board also had 269 emailed comments to consider.
“Most teachers just want to get the kids back,” said Jennifer Freeland, president of the Indian River County Education Association, in an interview before the meeting. “If that means wearing masks a little bit longer, then let’s do it.”
Pinellas County School Board also faced the wrath of parents on Tuesday as it voted unanimously to extend an emergency mask rule set to expire Nov. 9. The board must vote on the measure a second time Nov. 10. By then, the extension might not be needed, some board members said.
Parents in Pinellas called the mask mandate “astonishing and disgusting.” They demanded that the district drop the extension, pointing out that Florida has avoided a major uptick in Covid-19 cases since schools reopened during August.
“Give us the choice to unmask our kids,” parent Amy Mack told the board. “Your schools will be much safer and happier places if you allow our kids to show you their beautiful smiles.”
“No one is enjoying sitting around here wearing masks,” Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego told the board. “Our goal is to keep schools open, and that we have to lead with.”
Some 14,000 students in Pinellas County are aiming to end online learning soon, according to school officials, which would mean that about 70 percent of students would be back in schools, up from 60 percent currently.
In Leon County, the school district announced Monday that 3,370 students have opted to return to campuses after beginning the year with distance learning.
Florida is unique in bringing more students back to campuses and playing more sports while it lags behind other states in mask mandates, said Kelly Holder, chief information officer with MCH Strategic Data, a Missouri-based group compiling data on mask requirements across the country.
“Nobody else is really doing that,” Holder said in an interview.
Universal mask policies would help prevent thousands of deaths tied to Covid-19 in Florida, according to data from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The state is on track to have 25,531 total coronavirus deaths by January. Deaths would fall dramatically if the state adopted a universal mask mandate, and would rise if current safety mandates are eased, IHME data shows.
Florida reported 119 new coronavirus deaths on Tuesday for a total of 15,722 deaths, according to the state Department of Heath. The state had 2,709 new cases and a positivity rate of 4.76 percent for new cases.