The Florida Department of Health released new rules for COVID-19 mitigation in schools Friday. The rules say school districts can mandate mask-wearing if they offer an opt-out program.
The rules were announced exactly one week after Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold money from districts mandating masks.
Masks are only mentioned in the DOH’s emergency rule twice.
In section one, it says schools “must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face-covering or mask.” And in the sixth section, it says anyone who opts out of wearing a mask in school cannot be subject to harassment or discrimination.
None of the wording mentions bans or bans posing a health risk to students.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis held a news conference about the changes Friday. He said what the rules didn’t say made the message clear.
“It does give an opportunity in here for school districts to mandate masks,” he said.
Last Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new recommendations on COVID protocols. It said everyone in a school should wear a mask, vaccinated or not. DeSantis held a press conference three days later. He slammed the CDC and Biden Administration for requiring masks without “well-grounded scientific justification.”
He also quoted an unpublished Brown University study. The study that claimed it did not find “a correlation between mask mandates and COVID-19 rates” in schools in Florida. However, there are a number of issues the study’s own researcher has pointed out. It hasn’t gone through the crucial peer-review process that validates scientific studies. It also did not take into account the new Delta Variant.
That didn’t stop DeSantis from threatening to withhold state funding from anyone who violated his rules.
But his emergency order didn’t outright ban mask mandates. It directed the departments of Health and Education to reevaluate COVID rules. Violating the rules could result in penalization.
‘Masking is safe and saves lives’
Dr. Paul Robinson represents the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He and other physicians protested in Tallahassee Friday, urging the Governor to rescind his executive order. Robinson said DeSantis’s handling of COVID-19 and insistence on citing one study shows a lack of scientific and medical literacy.
“In medicine, we do not look at one study to make a decision. We look at the preponderance of the evidence and the literature,” Robinson said. “And the preponderant literature clearly states masking is safe and saves lives.”
The CDC recommendations were changed after researchers studied the Delta Variant of COVID-19. Unlike previous variants, Delta is much more transmissible. People who are vaccinated are at a significantly lower risk of contracting the virus, but could still transmit it. Robinson said mask-wearing is important to protect others, not just ourselves.
The Delta Variant has dramatically increased infections and hospitalizations among children and young adults. USF Researchers found an 87-percent increase in hospitalizations of children under 12 and an 84-percent increase in children 12-19. Those numbers are much different than last year when children were not contracting COVID at high rates.
Furthermore, vaccines are not available to children under 12.
New guidance for Hope
Friday’s new rules do not prohibit school districts from mandating masks. But the rule says schools have to put a program in place to allow parents to opt-out.
The DOE also approved rules Friday that open up the Hope Scholarship. Students who might feel harassed by a school’s COVID procedures are now eligible. Hope Scholarship funds are usually reserved for children experiencing verbal and physical harassment or bullying. It allows students to transfer to out-of-district schools or private schools.
Some counties, like Duval, have indicated they’ll mandate masks with the possibility of parental opt-out. And some, like Alachua, are going with limited mask mandates for the first few weeks of school. But Davis said Hillsborough will be going with a strong recommendation to wear masks.
“We are only a few days in front of us for school,” Davis said. “And openly, whether you implement that strategy – strongly recommending them or make them optional – the outcome becomes the same.”
School starts for most of Florida on Tuesday. The Hillsborough County Schoolboard has called an emergency meeting for Monday morning. It will discuss the new rules and the Governor’s Executive Order.