Florida schools drop mask mandates ahead of special session

Andrew Atterbury

TALLAHASSEE — After months of fighting with the DeSantis administration, the last few Florida school districts requiring students to wear masks are loosening their Covid-19 restrictions.

The final three school board holdouts — Alachua, Broward and Miami-Dade counties — this week agreed to drop their student mask mandates and come in line with a contentious state rule, signaling the possible conclusion to a fall clash ripe with lawsuits and sanctions.

Declining coronavirus caseloads and a vaccine available to children ages 5-11 were factors in schools scaling back the policies. But the moves also come mere days ahead of a special legislative session where Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers are preparing to crank up the heat on defiant local leaders.

“We can’t risk a further war with the [Florida Department of Education],” Alachua school board member Robert Hyatt said Wednesday at a special meeting.

DeSantis and legislative leaders are aiming to put an “exclamation point” on Florida’s “Parents’ Bill of Rights” during a special session next week to strengthen the policy that has been a key piece of enforcing the state ban on local school mask mandates. State lawmakers will also work on legislation to stop the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates for federal workers and employers with 100 or more workers.

The Florida Department of Education is docking the monthly salaries of school board members who supported strict masking rules — and withholding federal grants meant to offset the losses — but those penalties weren’t doing enough to spur compliance, according to DeSantis.

The Republican governor is pushing the Legislature to grant parents the ability to sue school districts, and recover the costs and attorneys’ fees, when their children are masked or quarantined against their wishes. The policy could put school districts in a financial bind over facing heightened legal challenges and limit what types of Covid protections they can implement if Florida experiences another coronavirus surge.

“I guarantee you with having that type of teeth in the Parents’ Bill of Rights, you’re going to have everyone get in line,” DeSantis told reporters at an event earlier this week.

Some 13 school districts defied the DeSantis administration by enacting local student mask mandates early in the fall semester, although many schools dialed back restrictions at threat of sanctions from the state and after seeing Covid-19 caseloads decline. The state Department of Education in October pressed eight school boards, including Palm Beach, Duval and Leon counties, to drop their masking requirements and as of now, they each have.

Broward County’s school board on Tuesday decided that masks should be optional for all students starting Nov. 20 while leaders in Miami-Dade County created a policy for parents to opt their children out of face coverings. Then on Wednesday, Alachua County became the last school board to comply with the DeSantis administration by allowing students to opt-out of masks.

“I don’t know why we are continuing to fight the battle,” said Alachua board member Gunnar Paulson. “It’s gone too far.”

Florida reported 1,588 coronavirus cases among children younger than 12 years-old between Oct. 29 and Nov. 4, a far cry from when the state saw 26,475 cases during the same span in late August, according to Department of Health data.

School boards and parents who support mask mandates have been dealt numerous losses in court against the state over Florida’s mask policy, most recently on Friday after an administrative law judge upheld the Department of Health rule banning local mandates. Conversely, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Texas’ ban on school mask mandates violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, creating a possible opening for scrutiny of policies in Florida.

Although all of Florida’s schools are now following the state rules, some board members have expressed concerns that mask mandates could again be a contentious issue with the holiday season approaching.

“We’re still strongly encouraging masks because we know we’re not totally free of the pandemic,” Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward school board, said Tuesday.

Florida’s Board of Education is scheduled to meet next week to discuss the U.S. Education Department decision to seek a cease-and-desist order to block their move to withhold a combined $567,000 in federal grants from school board members in Alachua and Broward counties. With schools now in compliance, it’s unclear what will happen with the federal grant money. State officials pledged to repay the board salaries that were stripped during the spat over masking policies.