This editorial board has agreed with many of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ main views on getting kids back to school during the COVID pandemic. Like the governor, we were early supporters of opening brick-and mortar facilities at the beginning of the 2020 school year. We, like him, embraced giving parents a choice of having kids attend in-person or remotely. We both extolled the many advantages of in-person learning and warned how closing schools would have dire consequences for students, especially ones on the educational margins. The message was be nimble and be flexible — but be open.
We cannot, however, agree with his recent executive order forbidding schools from requiring that students wear masks. DeSantis should allow individual school districts to make that decision. The tailored approach would better account for the geographic vagaries of COVID — every county doesn’t get hit as hard — while ensuring districts have an important tool in the fight against the virus.
School starts next week in most Florida counties. The students will return to classrooms not long after the state posted its highest one-day total of new COVID cases and hospitalizations. Florida also ranks top among the states in several unflattering COVID statistics, including the rate of children hospitalized with the virus.
Kids under 12 years old accounted for almost 10 percent — 10,785 cases — of the state’s COVID total last week. Just like last year, COVID deaths among kids remain extremely rare. But we still have little understanding of the long-term impacts associated with COVID. And the delta variant appears to be much more infectious than last year’s version, which means it could invade a school or district quickly, especially elementary and middle schools where all or many of the students are too young to be vaccinated. Most public health officials say mask wearing can reduce the spread, which helps keep schools safe and open. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for mandatory masking of everyone in schools. Remember the basic function of masks: It’s mostly to protect the people around the one who is wearing the mask, though masks provide some protection to the wearer. Surgeons wear masks mostly to keep from infecting the patient, not vice versa.
But DeSantis doesn’t think mask wearing in schools did much if anything to create different health outcomes last year. He wants to ensure that parents make the decision on whether their kids wear masks to school. He frames it as an issue of parental choice and personal freedom. In issuing his executive order, he told the state education commissioner to pursue all avenues to ensure that school districts comply, “including but not limited to withholding state funds from noncompliant school boards.”
The argument that mask mandates unduly infringe on personal or parental freedoms rings hollow given that schools already have dress codes and require most students to get vaccinated against infectious diseases like polio and measles. And the idea of withholding funding from districts that are trying to keep kids safe during a pandemic defies logic and reeks of political insecurity.
Wearing masks in schools is far from ideal. They inhibit communication between teachers and students and can hinder young children who are just learning to pick up on social and emotional cues. For those reasons, school districts should not mandate mask wearing on a whim or because it is politically expedient. They should make those decisions based on current data and the most up-to-date understanding of the virus and how it spreads. It’s way too early to call for mask wearing for the entire school year. Districts that decide a mask mandate is needed should put it in place until early October, for instance, and then proceed from there.
School districts must be allowed to continue to create safe and positive educational environments. There appears to be legal wiggle room for school districts to sidestep DeSantis’ executive order. School districts must do what they think is best for their students and employees. They should not have to fight COVID with one hand tied behind their backs.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.