ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is responding to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that includes recommendations of masks in schools, something the governor has publicly opposed throughout the pandemic.
The new guidance was announced Tuesday as COVID-19 cases are surging nationwide, largely due to the highly contagious delta variant, according to health experts.
Previously, the federal agency had said vaccinated individuals could go mostly maskless, including in schools. On Tuesday, officials reversed course on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the delta variant has changed the nation’s COVID-19 outlook since the CDC relaxed masking recommendations.
Citing new information about the ability of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status. Most school districts in Florida have already made masks optional for the upcoming school year.
DeSantis has previously said he does not support the idea of children wearing masks in classrooms.
Last week, he doubled down on his opposition to mask mandates for public-school students during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying he would call for a special legislative session if the federal government moves toward requiring masks in schools.
“There’s been talk about potentially people advocating at the federal level, imposing compulsory masks on kids,” DeSantis said last week. “We’re not doing that in Florida, OK? We need our kids to breathe.”
Following the release of the updated guidance, the governor’s office released the following statement, saying parents should have the right to decide whether their children wear masks at school:
“Governor DeSantis believes that parents know what’s best for their children; therefore, parents in Florida are empowered to make their own choices with regards to masking. Experts have raised legitimate concerns that the risks of masking outweigh the potential benefits for children, because masking children can negatively impact their learning, speech, emotional and social development, and physical health (e.g., infections from bacteria that’s often found on masks, difficulty breathing while exercising in masks, etc.) Fortunately, the data indicate that COVID is not a serious risk to healthy children, which is why schools in most countries were among the first institutions to reopen. At the end of the day, the Governor trusts parents to weigh the risks and benefits and make the best choices for their kids.”
More than 4 million children have been infected with COVID-19 in the United States since the start of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. With the highly infectious delta variant spreading across the country, doctors worry about that number continuing to climb. Doctor Fatma Levent, of AdventHealth for Children, specializes in pediatric infectious diseases in Orlando, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise. As the powerful delta variant sweeps the country, Levent says it’s affecting children more than previous strains. And more of them are ending up in the hospital.
“When they get it, it’s usually mild. However, they can get hospitalized, they can get pneumonia and other complications,” Levent said.
Click here for more information on how the delta variant is impacting children in Central Florida.
As for the negative impacts of mask-wearing the governor mentioned in his statement, experts have said while there may be some cons to children wearing face coverings, there are workarounds.
According to a post from two pediatric physicians in the American Academy of Pediatrics, face makes actually do not reduce oxygen flow or impact a child’s ability to learn in school.
The two pediatricians break down the five most common myths about mask-wearing and children here.
In a New York Times report, Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, who studies the development of facial recognition skills in children, pointed to three potential problems masks might pose for children in interacting with classmates or teachers.
First, he said, kids under the age of 12 may have difficulty recognizing people, because they often focus on individual features, the Times reported. Next, he said a lot of our emotional information is displayed through the movement of our facial musculature. Because that musculature and therefore that information is obscured by masks, children may have issues with “emotional recognition and social interaction,” he told the newspaper. Finally, Lee said children may have problems with speech recognition since a great deal of information is communicated visually.
To help combat those issues, experts said parents can focus on the time they spend unmasked at home with their children and use it to emphasize face-to-face activities and interactions.
Experts also note that these suggestions may not be the best fit for every child and that parents should consider their child’s individual needs.
“Several of them also pointed out that children with neurodevelopmental issues such as autism will need special help and special consideration — but also that some of the techniques that parents and teachers already use to help these children learn to interpret social cues may be helpful for everyone when masks are in use,” according to the NYT report.
Click here to read the full New York Times article.
The Orange County Classroom Teachers Association also responded to the updated guidance on Tuesday.
“We are relieved that the CDC made that recommendation, especially considering the tremendous surge in Orange County. Masks were required during summer school, yet 260 tested positive. Imagine what it would look like if school started with no mask mandate,” president Wendy Doromal said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is also recommending all students and staff wear masks during in-person education, regardless of their vaccination status — though the organization also points out that in-school transmission rates are low and severe COVID cases are rare among children.
At last check, masks were optional in most Central Florida classrooms, though some districts have said they will adjust policies if necessary.
School starts in about two weeks for most Central Florida school districts. For the latest information on COVID-19 policies and other back-to-school updates, visit ClickOrlando.com/backtoschool.
The Associated Press and New York Times contributed to this report.