Richard Corcoran is Florida’s education commissioner, a political appointee. He is not a physician, not the state’s surgeon general and not an authority on public health. So it was good to see the pushback this month after Corcoran called on local school districts to end their mask mandates in the fall, claiming that they “do not impact the spread” of the coronavirus. This is a decision for local communities, and it should be based on science and local conditions, not posturing from Tallahassee.
Corcoran wrote to local school superintendents April 14 complaining that mandatory mask policies “inhibit peer-to-peer learning” and suggesting they may actually dissuade some students “who would otherwise choose in-person instruction” from returning to the classroom. He said a review of “all districts relevant health data” and other information shows that “face covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus.” Corcoran called masks “a personal decision” for individuals and families, and said mandatory policies in the schools “serve no remaining good at this point.” He urged districts to make mask policies voluntary for the 2021-2022 school year that begins this fall. “One-size fits-all policies do not meet the unique needs of individual students or their families,” he wrote.
Of course, ending mask requirements and making mask wearing voluntary statewide is a one-size policy, too. That ignores the very different threat levels that exist in densely-populated South Florida, for example, versus rural counties in the Panhandle. And where is the science behind this appeal? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still strongly recommends mask wearing in public settings. “It is especially important to wear a mask when you are indoors with people you do not live with,” according to CDC guidelines. The agency calls masks “a simple barrier” to help prevent the spread of respiratory droplets that can transmit COVID-19. And with infections still high in Florida, and with case counts holding steady in Tampa Bay area schools (and in some cases, even rising), this is hardly the time to declare mission accomplished.
The good news is that many school districts seem inclined to ignore Corcoran’s request, or at least to avoid any premature decisions. Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said Leon County Schools will “not commit to comply with the memo at this time,” and called Corcoran’s dismissal of masks a “heretical” assertion that should be recanted by a commissioner “not qualified to make that statement.” Many Tampa-area school leaders were noncommittal, while other large districts said they would look to the CDC or reexamine the question this summer as the next school year nears. The Pinellas school board this week agreed to keep mask requirements in place through the end of the current school year, but the district might experiment with making masks optional during voluntary summer programs.
Districts have worked hard to provide safe learning environments as the pandemic raged the past year. Everyone has an interest in returning students to traditional classrooms and to plug the achievement gaps from remote learning. Corcoran, to his credit, pushed strongly last year for school leaders to accommodate as many students as possible with in-person instruction. But there’s no gain in short-circuiting public health precautions. School leaders need to work with public health authorities, teachers, parents and others to gauge the prevalence of COVID-19 in their communities and respond accordingly — whether that means continuing to require masks, distancing protocols or other steps. Governments at all levels have adjusted as they learned more to better manage the pandemic. This is the same deliberate approach Florida needs to take.
Some Americans are still complaining about masks more than a year into the pandemic, and that includes parents of some Florida school children, who want the benefits of civic life without the responsibility. Masks have served a broad public benefit, and school districts have plenty of time to assess whether requiring masks is prudent for the fall.
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