TALLAHASSEE — Two of the largest school districts in Florida and the nation on Wednesday bucked the DeSantis administration by passing mask mandates for all students just one day after other school districts in the state were put on notice for taking similar action.
By requiring masks, the school districts encompassing Miami and the Tampa area are violating emergency rules from Gov. Ron DeSantis and state agencies meant to thwart local Covid-19 mandates. The Republican governor has shown no desire to turn down the heat on defiant school districts, leaving them open to dire sanctions like officials being ousted from office.
“Forcing young kids to wear masks all day … that’s not defying me,” DeSantis said Wednesday at an event in Pembroke Pines. “That’s defying the state of Florida’s laws and the parents bill of rights that was enacted just this past legislative session that I signed into law.
Despite pressure from the state Department of Education, the Miami-Dade and Hillsborough school boards voted to install stricter mask policies than the DeSantis administration wants. With schools already seeing thousands of Covid-19 cases this fall, local board members chose to disobey the state’s GOP leadership, which is pushing for parents to have the ultimate decision on masks.
The Florida votes came shortly after President Joe Biden urged his Education Department to “use all available tools” to combat Republican governors prohibiting Covid-19 mitigation strategies like masking in the classroom, marking the latest intervention from the feds in Florida’s mask fight.
Miami-Dade and Hillsborough joined Alachua County and Broward County in challenging the order from DeSantis banning mask mandates, giving the state Board of Education two more targets for possible sanctions.
“We should not allow ourselves to be scared by the governor’s threat,” said Lucia Baez-Geller, a Miami-Dade County school board member. “I think it’s the best choice right now for our students’ health and safety.”
Some school board members in Miami and Hillsborough alike were uneasy about fighting DeSantis’ policies. In Hillsborough, the vote was 5-2 to require students wear masks for 30 days. The county, enrolling nearly 219,000 students in the Tampa area, reported 1,638 Covid-19 cases in schools since classes began Aug. 10, according to its dashboard.
Schools Superintendent Addison Davis recommended that Hillsborough County should follow the state’s policies and allow students to opt out of wearing masks as required by the Florida Department of Health. The penalties floated by the state Board of Education, which include withholding state funds, would “create disruption” for the district, Davis told the Hillsborough board at an emergency meeting Wednesday.
Some board members agreed.
“I have no interest today in breaking the law,” said Melissa Snively, a Hillsborough County school board member who voted against the mask mandate.
The lone dissenting vote in Miami-Dade County came from school board member Lubby Navarro, who said it would be “shameful” to see the district have to defend itself to the state board in the same fashion as Alachua County and Broward County leaders did Tuesday.
Schools open in Miami-Dade County for some 335,000 students on Aug. 23.
“My constituents of District 7 never elected me to violate the law,” Navarro said. “Never.”
Florida, along with states like Texas, Arkansas and Tennessee, has pushed to block local mask mandates in schools as face-to-face classes are ramping up. The moves break from guidance put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending face coverings indoors for children regardless of vaccination status.
Masking students has been a contentious fight locally and even nationally as parents argue for and against blanket policies for face coverings on K-12 campuses. The White House is battling it out with DeSantis and other state officials who are against mask mandates.
Besides Wednesday’s directive to “use all available tools,” the Biden administration said last week that school districts could use federal Covid-19 relief to backfill school budgets that get slashed for requiring face coverings, a move that angered Florida’s Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. The DeSantis administration, which has rejected lockdowns and blanket policies for face coverings, maintains that masks don’t make enough difference in school-age children to be required through blanket statewide or local policies.
“I want schools to stay open,” said Nadia Combs, a Hillsborough County school board member. “If it requires children to wear masks for 30 days so we can go past this peak, that’s what I’m asking for.”