Florida Education Department presses school districts to drop mask mandates

The Florida Department of Education this week urged local school districts to drop their mandatory mask policies ahead of next fall, maintaining that face coverings should be a personal decision for students going forward.

In a Wednesday letter to superintendents, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran claimed that mask mandates “do not impact the spread of the virus” in schools but have created a detrimental effect on student learning. Corcoran’s attempt to nudge districts to scrap their policies, which have sparked lawsuits and divide in local communities, is already receiving criticism from local education leaders.

“Broad sweeping mandatory face covering policies serve no remaining good at this point in our schools,” Corcoran wrote.

Mask off: 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 Research Center.

In some cases, those policies caused a rift between school boards and parents as the public health debate surrounding masks often morphed into a political and civil rights battle. Parents filed lawsuits and were often reduced to tears and anger at local school board meetings, arguing that requiring students to wear masks in school is “truly insane and cruel” and “heartless.”

But while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks are a “simple barrier” to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, the Florida Department of Education maintains that face coverings can impede instruction, especially for students with disabilities “who benefit from viewing a teacher’s face and mouth.”

“Mandatory face covering policies inhibit peer-to-peer learning in our classrooms and they may also unintentionally create a barrier for students and families who would otherwise choose in-person instruction if such a policy were not in place,” Corcoran wrote.

Many school districts in Florida have recently decided to return fully to on-campus learning in the fall and turn away from online classes as the Covid-19 vaccine rollout continues. To that end, some school leaders are hesitant to scrap mandatory mask rules with more students expected to come face-to-face with teachers.

Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna was among the first to blast Corcoran’s stance on masks.

"It's a heretical statement that should be immediately recanted," Hanna told the Tallahassee Democrat on Thursday. “He’s not qualified to make that statement, just like I’m not qualified to make that statement."

Just the numbers: The CDC recently reported that fewer than 1 percent of students contracted “school-related” coronavirus cases during a five-month period the agency tracked, though the transmission rate was higher for schools without mask mandates.

The CDC also found that more than 63,000 school-aged kids in Florida tested positive for coronavirus between Aug. 10 and Dec. 21.