With one-fifth of the nation’s surging COVID-19 infections reported in Florida, school boards are faced with conflicting guidance on whether students should wear masks when the 2021-22 school year begins in three weeks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this week updated school COVID-19 guidelines, calling for “universal masking” for students over age 2, even if they’ve been vaccinated.
AAP’s advisory won’t change the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) guidance, at least for now, the Biden administration said.
The CDC recommends, but doesn’t mandate, children younger than 12 – who cannot as yet be vaccinated – wear masks this fall.
All 67 Florida school districts are planning “a full return to in-class instruction” this fall. As of Friday, none had mandated students wear masks.
Miami-Dade Schools and the Palm Beach County School District are among districts that issued statements clarifying they have no plans to change optional mask policies.
Orange and Broward county school board members are among those who’ve expressed alarm over the Delta variant-fueled COVID-19 outbreak and the mixed messaging on how vulnerable children are. Several will view options next week.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’ll make it easy for school boards by banning mandated-masking via executive order or by calling lawmakers into a special session.
“We look forward to this upcoming year to be a normal school year, be in person, and live like normal and learn like normal kids,” he said Thursday at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce.
“There’s been talk about potentially people advocating at the federal level, imposing compulsory masks on kids,” DeSantis continued. “We’re not doing that in Florida, OK? We need our kids to breathe. We need our kids to be able to be kids.”
Parents, not the government, will determine what’s best for Florida students, he said,
“Parents obviously can equip their kids to go to school however they want, but there shouldn’t be any coercive mandates on our schools,” DeSantis said.
“As of now,” he said, no Florida district he is aware of is planning to require unvaccinated students or faculty wear masks but there’s “a campaign from Washington to try to change that.”
If CDC guidance changes, DeSantis said he’s discussed calling a special session with House Speaker Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, “to do something from the legislative perspective” in mandating no mask mandates.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we got to start putting our kids first. We got to look out for their education. Is it really comfortable? Is it really healthy for them to be muzzled and have their breathing obstructed all day long in school? I don’t think it is.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday said CDC’s guidance that masks be optional hasn’t changed, but said DeSantis’ threat to take decisions out of locally elected officials’ hands “puts kids at risk.”
“If I were a parent in Florida,” Psaki said, “that would be greatly concerning to me.”
The AAP Monday recommended children over age 2 wear masks, citing concerns about the more transmissible Delta variant, especially in communities with low vaccination rates, differing from CDC’s July 9 optional mask guidance for 12-and-under.
DeSantis called the state’s COVID-19 surge a “seasonal pattern” that will dissipate and said his stance against mask mandates and lock-downs is “science-based.”
“If anyone is calling for lockdowns, you’re not getting that done in Florida,” he said. “I’m going to protect people’s livelihoods. I’m going to protect kids’ right to go to school. I’m going to protect people’s right to run their small businesses.”