MIAMI – Despite a ban by Gov. Ron DeSantis, two Florida school districts have decided to require masks when children return to classrooms because of dramatic rises in coronavirus infections, with the state leading the country in hospitalizations.
School boards in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, and Alachua County, home to Gainesville, made the decision based on rising hospitalizations and new cases of the coronavirus. The surge has hit parts of northeast Florida particularly hard.
The Duval County School Board voted late Tuesday to require students to wear masks unless parents submit paperwork to opt out. The Alachua County board said it had voted to require masks for the first two weeks of school, adding that the decision will be reevaluated in two weeks. Students in both districts go back to school next Tuesday.
“We applaud the school boards of Alachua and Duval County for listening to and following the advice of the doctors in their community,” the Florida Education Association said in a statement. "We hope other school districts will also heed the advice of the trusted medical professionals.¨
In Arizona, at least three school districts are also defying the state on masks, despite a recently enacted law barring mask requirements. Other states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah have also banned mask mandates in schools.
President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that governors who are against mask mandates should “get out of the way.” DeSantis sharply criticized Biden on Wednesday, repeating his stance that the decision on masks in schools should be left to parents.
“If you’re coming after parents’ rights in Florida, I’m standing in your way. You won’t get away with it,” he said. Instead, DeSantis said, the president should do more to secure the border: “Until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you.”
In Florida's capital, the superintendent of the Leon County school district sent a heartfelt letter to DeSantis asking him to allow a temporary mask requirement.
“I have stood firm in my belief that a mask mandate was the wrong course of action. With that said, I believe that new data and information as well as student instructional models compels us to rethink mask protocols," said Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who, like DeSantis, said he was concerned about how mask-wearing was impacting children emotionally.
Hanna said that only in the past 10 days, and before classes resume, four school-aged children in Leon County had been admitted to local hospitals with COVID-19 and two pre-K teachers were fighting the virus in intensive care units.
“Because the COVID-19 landscape continues to evolve, as superintendent, I’m learning that no matter how far you may have gone down a road, it is never too late to turn back and make a choice that is best for the community as a whole," he wrote.
The governor of Arkansas turned back. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson called the majority-GOP Legislature back into session to revert a state law he signed earlier this year prohibiting school mask mandates. Hutchinson expressed some regret about signing the ban but said the state’s cases were much lower when the bill passed.
“Everything has changed now,” he said Tuesday. “And, yes, in hindsight, I wish that it had not become law.”
Last Friday, DeSantis issued an executive order ordering school districts not to mandate the use of masks or they could risk losing state funding. The order cited a Brown University study that looked at schools in New York, Florida and Massachusetts, but with a caveat: It analyzed cases associated with schools and not cases spread in schools.
One of the authors, Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, said she was not consulted by the governor's office and said the study relied on data prior to the emergence of the more contagious delta variant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s top public health agency, last week recommended that masks be worn indoors at schools nationwide -- by teachers, staff, students and visitors -- regardless of their vaccination status.
Before vaccines became available at the end of 2020, masks were seen as a key way of reducing spread. One study involving Florida’s own Health Department found that mandatory mask last fall use appeared to be a factor in lower infection rates among students, while another found that Wisconsin schools with mask requirements and other measures had fewer cases than their surrounding communities in the first few months of last school year.
The CDC said the need for returning to masks has become greater with the spread of the more contagious delta variant, which has fueled a surge in cases in Florida. On Wednesday, more than 12,000 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, and nearly 2,500 of them were in ICU beds.
On Tuesday, the CDC added more than 50,000 new COVID-19 cases in the state over the previous three days, pushing the seven-day average to one the highest counts since the pandemic began, an eightfold increase since July 4.
In total, the state has seen more than 2.6 million cases and 39,179 deaths.
While some school districts decided to require masks, others have backpedaled.
The Broward County School Board, representing one of the largest districts in the state, had voted to require masks after hours of contentious debate that included a screaming match from angry anti-mask parents who set fire to masks and held picket signs outside. The board reversed course Monday over fear of losing funding, but on Wednesday said in a statement on Twitter that they are “waiting for guidance” in light of the governor’s orders.
Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale and Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.