This weekend, some of Florida’s largest school districts have moved to require masks for students, the latest in a weeklong saga that began when Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order aimed at preventing districts from mandating face coverings for kids.
However, the mandates — issued by districts including Hillsborough (Tampa), Orange (Orlando), and Palm Beach — come with a catch: parents are allowed to opt their children out of them, without providing a reason.
The state’s biggest school district, Miami-Dade, has not announced whether it will mandate face coverings for students. Its latest protocols, issued July 29, require them on school buses but not inside school buildings.
Broward Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, has not updated its guidance from Wednesday, which said masks are required for students. The guidance did not mention the choice of opting out.
Some large school districts, like Polk, Pinellas, and Lee, are making masks optional for students, according to their most updated guidance.
Florida reported 23,903 COVID-19 cases in a single day on Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it the state’s third straight day with over 20,000 new COVID cases.
As of Saturday, according to the Florida Hospital Association, there are 13,348 people hospitalized across the state — the highest figure the state has had during the pandemic. Nearly 30% of inpatients have COVID and 43.3% of adult intensive care unit patients have COVID.
According to the rule, these students would qualify for a Hope Scholarship, an existing program created to protect children who are bullied, assaulted, harassed or threatened in school.
The Florida Department of Health also announced a rule on Friday requiring school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates.
Both rules were in response to an executive order issued last week by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which directed the state departments of education and health to enact measures to protect “parents’ rights … to make health care decisions for their minor children.”
Multiple districts this week defied the governor’s order by issuing mask mandates for their students, including northern Florida’s Alachua County, where schools have experienced a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff, including two recent deaths.
Leanetta McNealy, the chair of the Alachua County School Board, who told ABC News Thursday that the executive order was “appalling and absurd,” said Friday in a text message that the district will now allow parents to opt out of wearing masks by using the Hope Scholarship.
South Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, the other district to require masks for students, had not released updated guidance by Friday evening. The district said Wednesday that it was “awaiting further guidance” before updating its policy.
The debate around mask requirements comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus wreaks havoc in Florida.
On Thursday, the Florida Hospital Association reported 12,500 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, marking a new pandemic high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state is now reporting over 17,000 new cases per day. About 1 in 5 COVID cases diagnosed in the country are now in Florida, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.