ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The coronavirus is disrupting more classrooms in Florida while lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis argue against school mask mandates in a Tallahassee courtroom. Three more school districts held hearings Tuesday to discuss stricter mask policies to avoid more disruptions as more staff and students are sent home due to COVID-19 infections and exposures.
School boards in Orange, Pinellas and Monroe counties were discussing whether to join at least eight other districts in defying the Republican governor, whose executive order gave parents the power to decide whether a child wears a mask to school. Together the three districts have more than 3,000 students who were abruptly told not to come back to their classrooms after positive tests or exposure.
School board members in Orange County, where Orlando is located, didn't vote on a policy change but directed their superintendent to impose a 60-day mandate under the district’s existing mask policy. Starting Monday, all students will be required to wear a mask unless they have a medical exemption. With nearly 200,000 students in Orange County, more than 1.4 million of Florida's 2.7 million students will be under a mask mandate.
Meanwhile, the school board in Pinellas County, where St. Petersburg and Clearwater are located, voted 4-3 against scheduling an emergency meeting later this week to consider a 90-day student mask mandate. Dozens of people spoke on both sides of the mask issue before the vote.
Pinellas board member Bill Dudley cited several studies indicating little difference in coronavirus infection spread among children whether they wore masks or not.
“If it doesn't make a difference, why do it?” Dudley said. “We have a mandate, and that mandate is choice. Do what you think is best for your child.”
The three-day hearing that started Monday before Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper pits pro-mask parents against the DeSantis administration and state education officials who contend that parents, not schools, should choose whether their children cover up in classrooms.
The highly contagious delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms this month. By mid-August more than 21,000 new cases were being added per day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. The state said 16,820 people were hospitalized on Tuesday, down from a record of more than 17,000 last week.
Dr. Mona Mangat, a St. Petersburg physician who specializes in pediatric immunology, testified Tuesday on behalf of the lawsuit plaintiffs that face coverings remain essential in classrooms because children 12 and under aren't yet eligible to get their shots.
“That leaves us with vaccination where we can and masking everybody,” Mangat said. “Masking of any sort that you can get your hands on is better than no masking.”
Other testimony Tuesday featured a Stanford University medical professor and researcher who supports DeSantis and state education officials in contending there's little science to warrant a mask requirement for all students.
“I don't think the evidence exists," said Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who has appeared on several DeSantis roundtable discussions and advised the governor about the virus. “Children are inefficient transmitters of this disease."
Testimony in the court hearing resumes Wednesday.
Some districts, such as the one that covers Jacksonville area schools, began the semester with a parental opt out for masks. The board agreed late Monday to adopt a stricter, 90-day mask policy beginning Sept. 7. That's in keeping with recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks at all times when indoors among groups of people.
State education officials have vowed to financially punish districts that don’t comply with the governor's executive order, contending they are violating state law unless they allow parents to opt-out their children for any reason. A lawyer for the defendants — DeSantis, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the state school board and education department — said the order heeds the state constitution and the Parents Bill of Rights law that took effect in July.
Orange County’s board has been pressured by pro-mask parents and teachers to follow the federal health guidance. The board in Pinellas County faced calls from a coalition of groups for a 60-day mask mandate. And in the Florida Keys, Monroe County’s board began discussions about a mask policy Tuesday.