The governor shouldn’t be bullying school board members who are trying their best to keep students safe during an unprecedented and quickly changing health crisis. But that’s exactly what he has done in recent days. The fight over requiring students to wear masks in school is an unneeded and self-inflicted distraction from the all-too-serious battle against COVID-19 and its delta variant.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration opposes mandatory mask wearing in public schools and has threatened to withhold funding and further punish any board members who dare to deviate from his way of thinking. So far, 10 county school districts have enacted mandatory mask mandates despite the governor’s over-the-top intimidation. They didn’t let DeSantis cow them from making an important decision. That’s exactly how independently elected school boards should handle a health crisis.
The governor should let individual school boards make decisions about mask wearing in schools. Unfortunately, his unnecessary coercion will likely continue. The governor is dug in on the issue, even as school boards grapple with the state’s rise in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Five things to keep in mind going forward:
More than the number suggests. Ten out of the state’s 67 county school districts might not sound like much, but those districts oversee more than half of the state’s public school students — about 53 percent, in fact. And other school districts are still considering whether to take up the issue. The state’s six largest school districts — Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange, Palm Beach and Duval — enacted mandatory mask requirements. As did Alachua, Leon, Sarasota and Indian River.
Not done lightly. The districts didn’t rush into their decisions, nor did they underestimate the impact of requiring masks. The school boards often called emergency meetings and held public hearings. They looked at the COVID numbers and spent hours debating the issue. They called on health and legal experts, heard from parents and staff, and then made thoughtful, if difficult, decisions.
Narrowly tailored. The 10 school boards rightly limited the duration and scope of their mask requirements. Hillsborough, for instance, will require masks for 30 days. Others will reassess after just a few weeks or up to 90 days. In some counties, the school superintendent can end the requirement if the local COVID numbers fall. Students can opt out for medical reasons. Hillsborough even allows students who had a medical exemption to last year’s mask requirement to use the exemption again this year without getting more medical documentation.
Doing the right thing, regardless of politics. In Florida, school board members don’t work for the governor. They answer to voters in their counties, who select them in nonpartisan elections. And while masks have become a political lightning rod during the COVID crisis, there was little indication that partisan tactics motivated the mask decisions. The school boards were not out to embarrass or undermine the governor. Board members in several counties talked of wanting to do what they thought best for students, even if that meant they would lose their next election. Most of the 10 counties lean Democrat, but Sarasota and Indian River favored former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Duval sided with Trump in 2016.
Doubling up on safety. The group of 10 already had a much higher vaccination rate for 12- to 17-year-olds than the other 57 counties. And now they have stricter school mask mandates, too. Will the double dose of prevention pay off in those 10 counties? We might not ever know for sure, given how many factors influence the spread of COVID. But vaccines and masks remain two of the best ways to keep kids safe. School boards must retain the ability to require mask wearing in their districts.
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