Florida schools come to grips with Covid-19

TALLAHASSEE — Florida school districts are pivoting hard and fast on their Covid-19 precautions two weeks into the budding fall semester due to surging caseloads and quarantines sweeping campuses.

On Monday alone, school officials in one small district — Taylor County — announced plans to shutter for several days after a wave of Covid-related quarantines put a strain on school operations. And across the state, in Republican-leaning Brevard County, the local school board narrowly passed a mask mandate for students after striking down the idea just two weeks ago.

The moves came as the Florida Department of Education announced it would defy a Florida judge by withholding the salaries of school board members in Alachua and Broward counties — two districts that resisted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rules preventing schools from mandating masks. The developments on Monday all-but guarantee that the weekslong fight over masks in schools will drag on into the school year as the state continues to fight a surge in Delta variant cases.

Board members in Brevard hope to avoid school closures by enacting strict mask policies but are certain to face blowback as the 11th district — and third in a Republican county — to mandate face coverings against the wishes of DeSantis, who believes parents should have the ultimate say.

“I don’t know that masks are the silver bullet, and I’m not in favor of a long-term mask mandate,” said Misty Belford, Brevard’s school board chair. “But I do know without a doubt that what we are currently doing is not working, and the options available for us to respond are incredibly limited.”

Florida’s school districts in many instances are seeing Covid-19 cases at a higher clip compared to the fall of 2020, with more students in the classroom instead of learning from home like last year. The rise in cases and students being sent home to quarantine has prompted some school leaders to enact mask mandates that break rules crafted by the DeSantis administration. A judge in Leon County on Friday ruled that Florida can’t punish school districts that defy the governor, and there are several other legal challenges to DeSantis’ anti-mask rules. But the Republican governor remains confident he will ultimately prevail in court.

“It will be appealed,” DeSantis said Monday at an event in Jacksonville. “We’ll end up getting it back.”

Some classrooms and even schools in the state have closed over the last two weeks to combat the spread of Covid-19 and the Delta variant, but now an entire district is choosing to shut down early in the fall semester.

One of Florida’s smallest districts, Taylor County, needs a few days to “reset” after coronavirus cases and quarantines reached a boiling point on Monday, said superintendent Danny Glover Jr.

He said that staff quarantines are straining food services, transportation and the county’s classrooms, adding that schools will close outright Thursday and Friday. The district, enrolling some 2,700 students, is using the time off to fine tune its learning plans for future quarantines, Glover said.

“This heightened operating status has taken a toll on our school sites,” Glover wrote in a message to the district Monday.

Aiming to avoid closures like the one Taylor is experiencing, Brevard County’s school board on Monday voted 3-2 to require masks on campus — including for students — over the next 30 days.

Brevard schools reported 784 coronavirus cases — 698 among students — between Aug. 24 and 26, along with 4,021 quarantines in the same span. Earlier this month, the county closed a middle school for two days over widespread quarantines.

The mask mandate is an attempt reduce Brevard’s “outrageous” Covid-19 numbers in schools but was opposed by board members who didn’t want to run afoul of the DeSantis administration.

“It is irresponsible to try to put a policy in place while we create a seesaw of going back and forth and back and forth,” said Matt Susin, vice chair of Brevard’s school board.

Brevard’s decision was met with immediate criticism from state Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), the House education budget chief and a key lawmaker in the area. Fine, in line with DeSantis, believes that masking is a parental right.

“That’s the law of the state of Florida whether you like it or not,” Fine said in a Facebook video.

Brevard may also need to reckon with the Florida Board of Education, which on Monday leveled sanctions on Alachua and Broward school board members who backed mask mandates. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran docked the monthly salary of board members, which in Broward is about $3,897.

Some 11 school boards across the state have approved mask mandates in defiance of the DeSantis administration, sparking intense anger among parents who don’t want their children wearing face coverings. More than half of Florida’s 2.8 million students live in school districts that require masks and another school board — Lee County — is considering the move on Monday evening.