Leon County Judge John Cooper was scheduled this week to conduct a three-day hearing involving a lawsuit that challenges the legality of an executive order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In the executive order, DeSantis stands firm on his position that parents — not school boards — have the right to decide whether their children should be required to wear masks on campus.
But a group of parents has challenged the governor’s legal authority to make that call.
This week’s Tallahassee court hearing, set to begin Aug. 23, comes after attorneys for DeSantis attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed.
The judge refused to toss the lawsuit, but refrained from any assessment on the merits of the case, according to numerous published reports.
In addition to DeSantis, the Florida of Board of Education has weighed in on the mandatory mask issue.
The board of education has created options for students who are in districts that mandate masks, but do not wish to comply. Instead of complying, those students can obtain a scholarship through the state to attend a private school, or can attend school in a different district.
Also, the state has warned districts that if they defy the governor’s executive order, they can face reduced funding in an amount equivalent to the sum of the superintendent and school board members’ salaries, according to numerous published reports.
President Joe Biden has countered that by pledging the federal government could fill that funding gap — if one arises — by using American Rescue Plan dollars.
“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” Biden said, on national television.
DeSantis, at another news event, countered: “We believe this is a decision for the parent.”
As the debate plays out, individual school boards continue to impose face mask requirements.
During an emergency meeting last week, the Hillsborough County School Board adopted a 30-day mandatory face mask requirement for students and staff, allowing an opt-out with a medical note.
School boards in Mami-Dade, Alachua, Palm Beach, Broward and Sarasota counties have taken similar actions.
The divisiveness of the mandatory masking issue was on full display during the Hillsborough school board’s hearing.
Board Chair Lynn Gray said the surge in the delta variant of COVID-19 created an emergency for the board — not only in terms of the number of positive cases being reported on campus, but also of the numbers of students and staff being forced to quarantine.
She said action was needed because the situation was unsustainable.
Passions ran high at the meeting.
Dozens of speakers on both sides of the issues made passionate 1-minute arguments, either for or against.
“Our K-5 children cannot get the vaccine, but at the same time, you’ve given them no option to do e-learning, no required social distancing and no required masks,” one parent said, urging the board to take action.
Another put it plainly: “I am very concerned for our vulnerable children.”
A third observed: “If you can mandate masks 100% last year, you can mandate masks this year. Your actions today can save lives.”
Other speakers presented a different point of view.
“Those that are living in fear, if they want to wear a mask, let them wear a mask. Put on a visor. Put on a second mask. But don’t force our children to wear masks if they don’t want to,” one speaker said.
Another put it this way: “Leave the mask policy as is, with parents deciding what’s best for their children.”
A third challenged the school board’s authority: “You work for us. We are not subservient to you. My children will not spend the rest of the year, or another minute, wearing a mask.”
Board members listened to hours of public testimony. Medical experts offered data and answered questions. Board members discussed the issue, too.
Ultimately, the mandatory mask decision passed on a 5-2 vote, with members Nadia Combs, Jessica Vaughn, Henry “Shake” Washington, Karen Perez, Board Chair Gray voting yes; and members Stacy Hahn and Melissa Snively voting no.
Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Addison Davis recommended that the board follow DeSantis’ executive order, but said he would support the board, whatever the vote’s outcome.
Hahn and Snively spoke against defying DeSantis’ executive order.
It remains unclear how the mandate, which remains in effect in Hillsborough public schools through Sept. 17, will be enforced.
Contact tracing can’t keep up
Meanwhile, in Pasco County public schools, masks are optional.
Dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 and the delta variant in this new school year, has not been easy, Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning told the Pasco County School Board at its Aug. 17 meeting.
“We are drowning. We are struggling to stay afloat,” Browning said. “It’s like bailing out a sinking ship with a thimble.”
The district can’t keep pace with the contact tracing that’s required, Browning said.
That’s problematic because by the time the contact tracing can be completed, the quarantine period has expired, he said.
“You may have positive cases, asymptomatic positive cases, in the classrooms,” the superintendent explained. “At this point, there is nothing we can do about that, unless they start showing symptoms. Then, as soon as they are symptomatic, they will be sent home.”
There’s another issue that’s compounding the problem, the superintendent said.
“What we’re having, and this is not a news flash, we’re still having some parents sending their sick kids to school,” Browning said.
School board member Alison Crumbley had this message for parents: “If your kid has a symptom, they don’t need to be showing up at school. Period. Done.”
“I can’t even imagine sending a kid to school that’s sick and you know they’re sick. We cannot be doing that right now.
“We’ve got to keep these number down, we’ve got to keep these numbers down,” Crumbley emphasized.
School board member Megan Harding said the district should provide COVID sick time for all teachers, not just those who have been vaccinated.
Browning disagreed: “It is a statement of fact that the costs for unvaccinated employees are higher.”
The district has already spent $12 million in COVID-related claims, and the district’s insurance fund is running at a $4 million deficit, Browning said.
School district statistics: 2021-2022 school year, to date*
Student cases: 2,310
Staff cases: 648
Student cases: 897
Staff cases: 196
*As of the evening of Aug. 22
Published August 25, 2021