September 8, 2021

To Mask or Not to Mask in School: a Debate in Florida (& other States).

*Editor’s Note: Elephant Journal articles represent the personal views of the authors, and can not possibly reflect Elephant Journal as a whole. Disagree with an Op-Ed or opinion? We’re happy to share your experience here.

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Floridians, and a lot of people outside of Florida, are familiar with the jokes of stupid things people do and that happen in Florida.

Searching “Florida Man” will generate all kinds of top 10 lists and stories. In my opinion, one man who deserves to be included in the search results is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

At the end of July—before the current school year started—he issued a ban against mask mandates in public schools. At the time, COVID-19 numbers were down; restrictions and mask mandates were being lifted. People started feeling a reprieve from this virus that majorly impacted the world and our normal way of living.

Then the Delta variant started escalating, with a significant leap in numbers of children, non-vaccinated people, and “break-through” cases testing positive. Schools continue to get hit hard with students and staff going into quarantine from either a positive result or close contact with someone who did.

Alachua County, Florida—where I live—was the first county in the state to go against the governor’s ban and voted to require masks to attend school with parents having an “opt-out” option by way of a doctor’s note for their child. The county school board took a proactive protective measure for the safety of the children, staff, and community they represent.

Initially, the mask mandate was only for two weeks.

During the two weeks, the school board reviewed information and, like the rest of us, saw the number of cases rise. Obviously, based on the best interest and safety of others, including children who cannot be vaccinated, they voted yes to extend the mask mandate. Not only does this mandate remain in place, at least 13 other districts in the state have voted for mandates, and some classes have had to quarantine.

Coincidentally, the governor dismissed an Alachua County School Board member for living in a different district and appointed his choice person as a replacement. When the board voted to extend the mask mandate, the only member to vote against the extension was the one the governor appointed.

Personally, I understand, support, and advocate for parents’ rights for their child(ren). I raised two kids in Florida. Whether I submitted and was approved a rezoning request for them to go to a different school, attended activities and conferences, or fought for my child’s right to express or defend themselves, as a parent, I was my children’s strongest advocate. Parental rights is the one aspect I agree with the governor about. Parents are usually the first best person to know what’s best for their children.

However, it can be a case by case, child by child situation.

Your kid may view a mask as part of what you do, how you get ready for the day—another accessory like shoes, belts, a hat for your face. Something you can decorate or express yourself with. Do schools that have uniforms have a uniform-allowed mask? Will a student be sent home for being out of uniform if they have a green mask instead of a tan one to match the shirt, pants, or shoes they have to wear? I’ve heard of kids being reprimanded, even sent home, because of a mask issue.

There’re other kids who have health issues. Some health issues can make it difficult to breathe with a mask covering your mouth and nose. If I’m busy trying to be able to breathe, I’m surely not going to pay attention to a teacher in a class. This makes for an inadequate learning environment. Anxiety kicks in because of difficulty breathing, which causes a panic attack and breathing becomes even more difficult. This isn’t healthy for anyone, much less a child. But another child with an immune deficiency can be better protected by using a mask.

I’m really curious to see how children evolve through the next 10 years.

At the beginning of this mask mandate ban, the governor made Hope Scholarship funds available to parents who did not want their child to wear a mask at school. Parents can apply for these funds to pay for their child to attend a private school that doesn’t require them to wear a mask. Since last I’ve read, private schools are saying they are at capacity and not admitting any new students. Children are left on waiting lists. This was not a solution.

Alachua and Broward counties filed a suit to overturn the ban. The judge ruled that the counties have a Florida constitutional right to protect as they see needed. Which means the counties are able to impose mask mandates as needed to protect the people in that county. The governor went against the judge’s ruling and issued a 48-hour warning that if the counties didn’t concede to his ban, funds would be withheld. He is withholding funds from the school districts and has filed a court appeal on the judge’s ruling.

Other districts—including Republican-held counties—have gone against this ban and ordered mask mandates. There are now at least 13 districts that have seen the need to mandate the use of masks for safety and precautionary reasons. These other counties are also pursuing state and federal legal actions to continue getting paid while keeping safety measures in place. They are standing up for the rights, safety, and protection of their students.

Oddly, last year, when the pandemic first hit Florida, the governor left mask mandates up to individual counties and did not institute a state mandate until months later. He was fine leaving it to the discretion of each county then.

The Florida Department of Health and the Florida Education Association 2020-2021 Safe Schools Report released that—as of September 3rd—over 141,000 children under 16 have tested positive. Our school system was underfunded and short staffed before the pandemic. Now on top of everything else, funds are being withheld. This makes no rational sense to me.

Instead of working with parents, school boards, communities, and health care professionals, Governor DeSantis is putting a greater strain on the situation. He is being a bully, threatening, and holding ransom the livelihood of our educators and school boards which puts our children and communities at greater risks.

Here’s one idea: wouldn’t it be easier to rezone schools for ones that are or aren’t masked?

Most districts have more than one school. Have one or two or however many needed, depending on district size and needs, designated masked or non-masked schools. Sure, issues of segregation and transportation come into play but it seems like a better, easier compromise that can work for both sides. There’s already a degree of segregation because of school zones. Why can’t the Hope Scholarship funds be used for transportation to a mask/non-mask preferred public school instead of tuition to a private school?

There’s got to be a better way than the physical altercations that are happening. There’s got to be a better way than withholding funds from school. Instead of doing more things that hurt and put children at harm, please think of what is best for these kids. Be open to ideas and working in the best interest of others.

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Update:

On Wednesday, September 8th, Leon County Circuit Judge Cooper ruled that Florida must immediately stop enforcing Gov. DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates in schools. Gov. DeSantis and the Florida Board of Education continue to request a stay and appeal the ruling.

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