Orange County schools reinstates mask mandate for adults as schools prepare to reopen

Some districts urge students to wear masks

ORLANDO, Fla. – With schools starting up again and an omicron wave of COVID-19 growing, districts are urging students, parents and staff to be prepared.

Orange County School Board Chairperson Teresa Jacobs said the district will reinstate its mask mandate for adults starting Tuesday.

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As for students, Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins said, “there is no requirement for students but face masks can add another layer of protection.”

Orange County, like all Florida school districts, cannot mandate masks in schools after Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature outlawed it last year.

“The legislation was written to empower parents and protect students from forced-masking policies,” DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw told News 6. “The law also protects employees from vaccine mandates, but it does not mention employer mask mandates. However, Governor DeSantis has publicly criticized all mask mandates—and specifically, employers forcing employees to wear masks.”

But they can of course offer the suggestion, as Osceola and Seminole school districts are also doing.

The Osceola County school district spent the holiday weekend posting on Facebook, urging students to get a COVID test if they’ve traveled or been exposed to the virus and to stay home if they’re sick.

An Osceola County school district representative said on Monday, their public schools had 12,660 excused absences, more than double the number of absences they had on any given day in December.

In Lake County, all schools now have test kits so staff and students, with parents’ permission, can take a test onsite if they’re feeling sick.

Seminole County schools superintendent Serita Beamon sent a letter to staff Monday, letting them know they could pick up at-home test kits Monday from drive-through sites at two schools and that “SCPS is committed to maintaining an opportunity for students to engage in traditional learning experiences with their teachers and peers.”

In a statement, a school representative said they will also expand COVID-19 testing to Seminole State’s Oviedo campus and the Health Department.

Seminole, nor any other district, has a choice in having students “engage in traditional learning experiences.” An Orange County schools spokesperson said the state did not approve for schools to offer an alternative option as a replacement to brick and mortar for this school year.

Seminole said it will not reactivate its virtual school at this time.

Orange County does currently offer virtual school.

DeSantis said Monday morning at a press conference in South Florida that schools will not close.

“Our schools will be open in the State of Florida,” DeSantis said. “They (children) need to be in school, parents need to be assured that they’re going to be able to send their kids to school.”

Parents like Bianca Banks did not intend on sending her child back the classroom immediately.

“If I don’t feel comfortable with sending her to school, I should be able to say I would like her to stay home for the next two months just to see how things go,” Banks said.

However, she missed the window to enroll in virtual learning for the spring. According to the Orange County Public Schools, parents cannot switch from virtual learning to in-person learning during the semester.

“It’s definitely stressful, the thought of not knowing if she goes back tomorrow if she’s going to be sick in the next couple days because of the increase that’s happening,” Banks said.

Dr. Annette Nielsen, a pediatrician, said it is highly likely several students and staff will be exposed to COVID-19.

“We have to realize a lot of kids and adults are going catch omicron and we have to be willing to say how can we help them if and we they get sick,” Nielsen said.

She encourages families not to panic, but to make smart choices.

Nielsen said parents should get their kids vaccinated if eligible and send them to school with masks.

Banks said that is not an effective plan.

“If you’re just saying OK, you can keep them home, it’s excused the teacher will email the work then that’s not effective because I can’t really help her with her work,” she said.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.