As COVID rises, more Florida school districts revolt against governor’s mask rules
TAVARES, Fla., Sept. 3 (Reuters) – In a scene replayed across the United States, angry parents and activists walked to a Florida County School Board meeting on Thursday, where he considered whether It was necessary to impose the wearing of masks on students and staff. due to COVID.
Some opponents of the mask proposal held up signs that read “Let our children breathe”. Even though Florida has seen a record number of coronavirus cases, one participant called the pandemic “over the top.” Another was escorted by MPs after yelling at board members.
The proposal would require staff and students to wear masks for 14 days in schools with COVID positivity rates equal to or greater than 5%. But Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis effectively banned similar terms in July.
Since the DeSantis order, more than a dozen counties in Florida have rebelled and voted to demand masks to protect students and teachers as the Delta variant sweeps through the state. This week, the state’s education ministry sanctioned two counties that have passed the school mask requirements.
The battle between DeSantis and the state’s school systems echoes larger battles across the country. Other Republican-led states such as Arizona and Texas have also banned mask warrants in schools even as COVID cases have skyrocketed in their states as parents and voters are sharply divided on security measures and personal freedoms.
The Florida pushback against the Republican governor was initially led by large urban school districts led by Democrats. But this week, more conservative counties that backed Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election also challenged DeSantis and instituted their own terms.
Earlier this week, the populous Brevard County along Florida’s east coast, which preferred Trump to President Joe Biden by more than 16 percentage points in November, narrowly voted to approve a school mask mandate of 30 days.
A day later, Hernando County, which backed Trump against Biden by nearly 30 points, also passed a mandate, but which allows parents to step aside.
In Lake County near Orlando, which has also strongly supported Trump, a school official said Thursday that more than 1,000 of the district’s 36,000 students have tested positive for the virus.
The board listened to more than three hours of public commentary on the mask proposal, then postponed a decision. Some 280 people spoke or emailed the issue, and two-thirds of them supported the idea, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Yet supporters of a mask warrant were booed and heckled by the crowd present.
“This topic has completely polarized communities,” said Andrea Messina, president of the Florida School Boards Association.
As the conflict focuses on whether state or local governments are best equipped to make decisions about health and safety, it has also become a political challenge for DeSantis, of which the state has become one again. outbreak of COVID-19.
After being widely praised last year when cases declined and the state’s economy appeared to be revived, DeSantis has faced new criticism for its opposition to masks and employer vaccine mandates. On August 26, Florida recorded a record number of new cases of the virus in a single day – nearly 28,000 – since the start of the pandemic.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw defended the ban on school mandates, saying the governor “protects the rights of families and children at all levels of government.”
At the Brevard County meeting on Monday, Misty Belford, the school board president who a month earlier opposed a mask mandate, reversed her vote and gave fans a 3-2 majority.
Belford changed her mind, she told Reuters, after observing the district’s peak workload, including a 49% increase in student cases week over week. One school was closed for two days after most of its students were quarantined.
“We are at a point of absolute crisis,” Belford said.
But board member Katye Campbell, who voted against the term, said she was concerned about the negative effects on students of the need for masks, such as asthma flare-ups, suicidal thoughts and panic attacks.
“There is nothing easy about this decision because our community is so divided,” said Campbell.
Belford said she was relying on a Florida court ruling last week that declared the DeSantis rule illegal. DeSantis appealed the decision on Thursday. Earlier this week, the Florida Board of Education said it would penalize two counties that voted for mask terms without providing a parental waiver, Alachua and Broward, by withholding funds from districts for council member salaries.
Leanetta McNealy, president of the Alachua County School Board, said her board voted for the mask’s term last month based on scientific evidence it would help mitigate the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
“I’d rather have my compensation cut than have a death under my watch,” she said.
Reporting by Saundra Amrhein in Tavares, Florida and James Oliphant in Washington; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Cynthia Osterman
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