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Will schools mandate masks? The answer will not please everyone.

School district officials are hearing from all sides in the increasingly polarizing debate.

Mary Anderson was outraged.

Like hundreds of other Hillsborough County parents, Anderson tuned in to her school district’s long-awaited reopening plan presentation as it streamed live over Facebook. She hoped to hear about safety measures that would make her comfortable sending her three children back to school after months away because of COVID-19.

The district’s rules about face masks ended any hope of that.

Officials said they will have masks for anyone who needs one, but they will not mandate masks as a way to stem the coronavirus spread.

Citing costs and control as two factors, superintendent Addison Davis instead focused on encouraging masks. If families don’t like that, he said, their children can take online classes at home.

“I just for the life of me can’t understand how we can have mask orders in the county ... and when we come back, not have mask orders for schools,” said Anderson, who works and wouldn’t leave her 10-year-old daughter at home. “So the choice is, really, send my children to school with no safety measures.”

Others couldn’t have disagreed more.

“Under no circumstances will my children wear masks at school,” parent Natalia Gries commented in the live chatter that ran below the district’s video feed, where others shared similar thoughts.

Hillsborough County parents and teachers discussed masks in schools on Facebook while district officials unveiled their August 2020 reopening plans.
Hillsborough County parents and teachers discussed masks in schools on Facebook while district officials unveiled their August 2020 reopening plans. [ Facebook ]

Aimee Eftink, a special education teacher at Booker T. Washington Elementary, said later that she does not see masks as practical.

“I just don’t know how you could enforce it,” Eftink said, adding that she often needs to see her students’ mouths to understand them. “It’s a possibility for some kids. I don’t think it’s possible for all kids.”

A similar discussion is playing out in school districts across Florida.

Officials say they want to ensure student and employee health for the coming academic year. They’re tackling issues such as how to keep the air flow clean, sanitize high-touch areas and maintain adequate distances in tight spaces, such as buses.

The flash point increasingly has become face masks.

As in the larger society, masks have become a political statement and a center of argument over their efficacy. Look no further than the Leon County Republican Party chairman’s lawsuit to stop a mask mandate, saying it infringes on his rights.

Public schools potentially face some added challenges, though.

State law requires children ages 6 to 16 to attend school, and the state constitution calls for a system of free public education. As a result, parents from each side of the debate contend that they have the upper hand in the mask debate.

Forcing their children to stay home for e-school, they suggest, deprives them of that free education.

School law experts say that’s not the case. So long as schools make classes available at no cost, they said, the requirement is met.

The bigger question, lawyers said, is whether schools can mandate a mask if the state does not. Courts have ruled that the state may regulate schools, but so far the Department of Education has told districts only to “explore strategies to utilize (masks) to the extent feasible.”

At the very least, the department said, “Schools should be supportive of students, teachers and staff who voluntarily wear cloth face coverings.”

That guidance leaves room for districts to go farther, though. And they do not have to follow rules set by municipalities, observed Tallahassee attorney Ron Meyer, who has represented the Florida Education Association in many cases.

“Constitutionally, the school board is charged with the supervision, operation and control of schools,” Meyer said.

The issue, then, comes down to the practicality of imposing a mandate.

“It’s not a legally easy thing to do, even if it’s a just and right thing to do,” said Dennis Alfonso, lawyer for the Hernando and Pasco county school boards.

Questions abound, including what would a school do if a student comes to campus and then refuses to wear a mask?

Alfonso and Jim Porter, a lawyer for the Hillsborough school board, offered a way to handle the situation: a dress code.

Schools impose rules about what to wear as a matter of course. The Pasco school district moved to ban pajamas this summer, for instance.

“I think we have the right to do that,” Porter said. “I can defend a mandatory mask.”

The Leon County school district, for one, looks well on its way toward requiring masks, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. And others are getting closer.

The Pinellas County School Board ordered 500,000 cloth masks at its June 23 meeting, with plans to distribute some to every student and staff member. The district hasn’t taken a stance on mask wearing, but board members say it’s just a matter of time.

Experts seem to agree that wearing a face mask helps stop the COVID-19 spread, said Rene Flowers, who also serves on Restart St. Pete, the city’s reopening task force. Letting people choose whether to participate doesn’t seem to help, she said, noting Florida’s rising case numbers.

“If a parent wants to send their child to Pinellas County schools, that child needs to wear a mask,” Flowers said.

School Board chairwoman Carol Cook said the conversation is coming.

“I think we would be irresponsible if we don’t say we need masks,” Cook said.

The Pasco County School Board is on the same path. After superintendent Kurt Browning told parents his reopening plan “encouraged” masks, the response came furiously from both sides.

Denise Nicholas, president of the County Council of PTAs, said her 9-year-old daughter told her she missed her teachers, but asked to stay home in August anyway.

“She wants to make sure she’s safe and she’s healthy,” Nicholas said.

By contrast, Wesley Chapel parent Deanna Fitzpatrick said her daughters want to go back to school, but without masks.

“They’re going to be not concentrating on what they’re trying to do,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that one of her girls has asthma, which a mask might aggravate.

School Board chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said masks will come up at a back-to-school workshop on Tuesday, and she’s leaning toward a mandate.

Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said parents are right to be concerned about their children’s health in school. So, too, are teachers.

“We don’t know the extent to which kids transmit the virus to adults,” Cicero said.

Experts have sent mixed messages about masks and what they can and can’t do, she said, and politics have further inflamed the discussion.

“If we want to continue a careful reopening process, I see masks as really a tool to help us do that,” Cicero said, “and enable us to see people in real life, rather than Zoom calls and learn from teachers rather than on computers at home.”

Anderson, the Hillsborough County mom, said she would send her children to school with masks, even if no one else does. But school district officials should craft a plan that more carefully considers the risks, she said, and then they should lead.

At least one Hillsborough School Board member is hearing the message.

“I personally think if we go back to school and we continue to see a spike, the virus is going to be dictating how this moves forward,” said board member Steve Cona, who noted the district required masks in summer pre-kindergarten after the city of Tampa issued a mandate. “I have gotten several concerns from parents ... We have to make a standard.”

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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