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Florida Schools Wrestle With Whether To Require Students To Wear Masks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

School boards across Florida are deciding whether to defy the state, which told them not to mandate face masks. In Miami-Dade County, classes resume next week, and the school board holds a vote today on a mask mandate. An emergency school board meeting in Hillsborough County will discuss masks after several hundred students tested positive for COVID and nearly 9,000 were quarantined. NPR's Greg Allen reports a board appointed by the governor is penalizing school districts that require face masks.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It comes down to parental rights, says Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. He signed an executive order that says it's up to parents, not school districts, to decide whether their children wear face masks at school. For school boards and superintendents worried about the rapid spread of the delta variant, it's an issue of public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends making masks mandatory for everyone in the schools, but that question is no longer up for debate. That's according to Chairman Tom Grady at the Florida Board of Education meeting.

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TOM GRADY: The issue isn't whether or not masks are good or bad or whether or not mandatory masks are good or bad. Those issues have been decided by the Department of Health, by the governor and by this board previously.

ALLEN: Governor DeSantis wasn't at yesterday's state board of education meeting held over Zoom, but he didn't need to be. His appointees, led by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, made it clear they were there to make sure his executive order and regulations issued by Florida's Health and Education Departments were followed. Most school districts in Florida complied with the governor's order, recommending but not requiring face masks. But as Corcoran told the board, not all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD CORCORAN: Unfortunately, to your point that you said earlier, we have districts who are picking and choosing what laws they want to follow.

ALLEN: The two school districts that have so far chosen to defy the governor are Alachua and Broward Counties. The board voted to begin the process of taking punitive action against the two districts, measures that may include withholding the salaries of school district officials or removing them from their positions. Carlee Simon is the superintendent of Alachua County. She told the board that she believes her district's policies comply with state rules because parents can opt out by submitting a doctor's note or by applying for a state-directed voucher for their child to attend a private school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLEE SIMON: Our goal is to keep our schools open. The masks are a safety device that we are using to reduce the spread of COVID and the need for quarantine.

ALLEN: President Biden has encouraged school districts in Florida to follow the CDC guidance. Biden's education secretary sent a letter to districts last week promising to provide federal funds to make up for any money withheld by the state. The president called Broward County School Superintendent Vickie Cartwright last week to express support for her district's decision to defy the governor. The board chairman asked her about that call.

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VICKIE CARTWRIGHT: He was asking about how the community was responding to the decision that the board had made and did we had a lot of people speaking out against face coverings?

ALLEN: Cartwright says there's been an overwhelming amount of support for the mandate in Broward County. In Florida's largest school district, Miami-Dade County, School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he recently spoke with the parent of a 13-year-old student who had died of COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERTO CARVALHO: I don't know what the threshold of acceptable pain in this community is. I don't know what the acceptable threshold or statistical probability of a single child dying is in this community.

ALLEN: Carvalho and other Miami-Dade school officials have signaled that despite the threat of penalties, they'll vote to adopt a mask mandate at today's meeting.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.