When it comes to schools, you might call this the year of the question mark.
What You Need To Know
- Increased cases of COVID-19 and governor's policies create questions as school year begins
- Questions include effectiveness of mask mandates that offer parents the ability to opt out
- Divide remains between parents who urge masks and parents who say they infringe on freedom
With their hands largely tied by the governor’s policies, how will administrators deal in the coming days and weeks with the delta-variant spike — or any other variant spike — in the coronavirus pandemic?
With hybrid in-class/at-home learning no longer an option, what’s their approach to students who test positive for COVID-19 and must be quarantined?
How will Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that bans school districts from requiring students to wear masks hold up in court?
Will we see classrooms that feature half of the students with masks and half without? What tension would that create among teachers, parents and students?
What will be the effect of requiring masks but allowing parents to opt out, as some school districts are now doing?
And what’s the overall mood as most schools in Tampa Bay and Central Florida prepare to open Tuesday, especially with no U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccinations for children under age 12?
“I think that there’s certainly anxiety. We’ve seen anxiety about what’s going to happen,” Scott Howat, chief communications officer for Orange County Public Schools, told Spectrum News last week. “We’ve heard from health leaders and others that are concerned about the spread, and we know that a lot of them have said, ‘Get vaccinated at home if you have children in school.’”
The concern comes as the delta variant continues to drive increased cases and hospitalizations in Florida, which The Associated Press late last month called the “new national epicenter” of the pandemic.
Tension from all sides
The surge has created tension among parents who call for mask requirements to protect their children, parents who say schools shouldn’t infringe on their rights to decide for their children and school boards that say the governor’s order in support of parental choice renders them powerless.
“The people that are doing this from Tallahassee are playing politics with a health issue, and nobody really wants to come out and say that,” Rev. James Golden, a board member for the School District of Manatee County, said Monday in response to a question from another board member. “This is a political effort, a political machination, to deal with a serious health crisis that we have in this state, in the country.”
The tension stood notable late last month in Brevard County, where a school board's open discussion on the question of masks in schools sparked heated debate among parents on both sides of the issue, prompting yelling, finger-pointing and law-enforcement escorts out of the meeting room.
In the middle of the tension stands Gov. Ron DeSantis, who two weeks ago banned school districts from requiring students to wear masks. The governor said he aimed to protect “the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children.”
He also threatened to withhold state funds from noncompliant schools.
Then on Friday, the Florida Board of Education and the Florida Department of Health approved rules that align with DeSantis’ policy.
In an emergency meeting, the Florida Board of Education said children in public schools would be allowed to use Hope Scholarships to transfer to a private school or to another public school if they felt they faced “harassment” in response to COVID-related decisions, including to go without a mask in class.
The board also passed an emergency rule that allows students who do school work while quarantined at home because of COVID-19 to get credit for days away from school. Normally, officials said, a student must be at school to get credit for attendance.
Response to new rules
On the same day, the Florida Department of Health approved a rule that requires school districts to give students the ability to opt out of any district mandates that defied DeSantis’ executive order.
Afterward, Orange County Public Schools promptly announced it would require students to wear masks for at least the first 30 days of the school year but would give parents the option of opting out of the requirement. Hillsborough County Public Schools and Seminole County Public Schools followed with similar measures shortly thereafter.
After those rulings and decisions, some school districts scrambled Monday, the eve of a new school year, to further discuss policies on the use of masks.
Like most districts, the School District of Manatee County begins classes Tuesday. On Monday, the board invited public comment during a community update and discussion of school-opening recommendations from the Florida Department of Health and the Department of Education.
Almost 50 community members spoke mainly on the question of masks, with many urging the board to make them mandatory, even with opt-out ability that some agreed would render a mask-wearing mandate no different than a mask-wearing option.
Most speakers voiced pro-mask opinions, yet opinions of those and others underscored the U.S.-wide divide that embraces health, safety and science on one side, with freedom, parental choice and “God-given rights” on the other.
“I feel like we are watching Florida burn while we’re holding a hose that is turned off,” pro-mask parent Jessica Patterson told Manatee board members.
Meanwhile, speaker Brian Moure told the board: “You must keep your policy to reject mask mandates,” calling them “unconstitutional, illegal, immoral, unscientific and illogical.”
The Manatee board, which meets again Wednesday, didn’t vote on whether to maintain its mask-optional policy, the position of most Central Florida and Tampa Bay school districts.
The board of Pinellas County Schools, which also met for a Monday workshop, said it would keep masks optional for the new school year, which begins Wednesday for that district. Supt. Michael Grego said he didn’t want teachers and principals to serve as “mask police.”
The Hernando County School District counts itself among districts that strongly recommends masks for staff, students and visitors.
'The rights of parents'
About its new mask mandate, Hillsborough County Schools Supt. Addison Davis told Spectrum News on Saturday: “What this does is allow us to continue to protect and appreciate the rights of our parents. We want our parents to be able to make that right decision that they feel most comfortable every single day within our classrooms.”
Yet questions remain on the effectiveness of mandates that allow parents to opt out of them, and some parents have made it clear that they’re not comfortable sending their children to school without mask-wearing requirements for all students.
Parents and students from Hillsborough, Orange, Pasco and Volusia Counties last week joined in a lawsuit that challenges DeSantis’ order banning Florida school districts from requiring students to wear masks.
The lawsuit focuses on the rights of children with disabilities, who the plaintiffs contend remain at elevated risk from COVID-19. The suit suggests that the governor’s order prevents children with disabilities from safely returning to school and integrating with other students.
The suit cites DeSantis’ threat to withhold state funding from non-compliant school boards. The suit also notes what it calls the governor’s “refusal to extend funding for distance learning,” which it contends has helped to limit school districts’ ability to act.
Without that funding, school districts have discontinued so-called hybrid learning models that last school year allowed students quarantined because of COVID-19 to learn at home via computer alongside students in traditional classroom settings.
That leaves parents to choose among traditional school, homeschooling and full-time virtual school, or eSchool, which districts throughout Tampa Bay and Central Florida offer.
Amid the increased COVID-19 cases and the uncertainty about masks, school districts in Brevard, Volusia and Hillsborough counties last week extended application deadlines for their virtual schools.
Questions about quarantines
The lack of a hybrid learning option puts increased emphasis on how quarantined students will learn while away from school. On Friday, the Florida Board of Education ruled that school districts must establish procedures for quarantined students, including access to assignments, materials and instructors.
Pinellas County Schools says in a website Q&A that quarantined and other students who miss school because of illness will get the opportunity to make up school work. The district also says it encourages teachers to post lessons on the Canvas learning platform “so that students can have access to lessons during their absence.”
“Teachers will provide assignments and resources as needed,” the website says.
Many school districts say they won’t require quarantine for vaccinated staff or students who are free of symptoms but have been in close contact with people who test positive for COVID-19.
The Manatee County school board on Monday presented a graphic that it said it adopted in response to a Florida Department of Health ruling on controlling COVID-19 in school settings. The graphic provides recommendations for home or school study depending on whether the student has developed symptoms, has tested positive or has gotten a COVID test at all.
In Flagler County, the Florida Department of Health says that rather than quarantine, staff and students in the county's schools will get the option to receive daily COVID-19 rapid tests and remain in school as long as the results remain negative.
In general, school districts have taken measures beyond general COVID-19 sanitation measures and requiring or strongly recommending the use of masks. Marion County Public Schools says it initially won’t allow visitors at elementary schools.
“Elementary students are not eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, so for this same reason, no elementary field trips will take place in the immediate future,” the school district said last week.
It’s going to be the year of the question mark, period.
“I just want to close with the words of one of our elementary school principals,” Kennedy, board chairman of the School District of Manatee County, said at the end of Monday’s meeting. “This is going to be a crazy year, even crazier probably than last year. We’re going to do the best we can, and we’re going to take it one day at a time.”
Spectrum News reporters Adria Iraheta and Laurie Davison contributed to this report.