‘I don’t see how it can be safe’: Florida schools on frontlines of state’s mask war

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<span>Photograph: Michele Eve Sandberg/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Michele Eve Sandberg/REX/Shutterstock

With about two weeks to go until the start of a new school year, Miami father Jerry Greenberg is feeling anxious.

With the more contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 fueling record-breaking positive cases across Florida, Greenberg’s biggest fear is that his son and daughter will catch the deadly respiratory disease even if they are wearing masks.

Related: ‘The Pied Piper leading us off a cliff’: Florida governor condemned as Covid surges

“They will be exposed to [other] kids not wearing masks and they could get sick,” Greenberg said. “I think they can safely go back in person, but only if they all wear masks. Without masks, I don’t see how it can be safe.”

Thousands of other parents across Florida find themselves in the same predicament as Greenberg, whose son is starting ninth grade at Palmetto Senior high school and whose daughter is entering sixth grade at Palmetto middle school. Both public schools are located in Miami-Dade county, where the largest school district in the state is mandating all students wear masks on school buses, but has stopped short of applying the restriction on campuses.

In a statement earlier this week, the Miami-Dade public schools superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, said the district is re-evaluating its decision to implement a mask-optional policy in light of updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending any children age two and up, as well as all school staff, wear masks indoors.

A volunteer escorts a first grader wearing a mask to a classroom on the first day of school in Davie in October 2020.
A volunteer escorts a first grader wearing a mask to a classroom on the first day of school in Davie in October 2020. Photograph: Wilfredo Lee/AP

Carvalho is leaning on the advice of a taskforce of medical and public health experts, which is expected to make its recommendation in the coming week before the 23 August start of the school year.

Except, Florida’s hard-right Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, looms large over any decisions the state’s school districts make about requiring students to wear masks inside educational buildings.

In recent weeks, DeSantis has veered further to the right by reiterating his disdain for Covid-19 restriction measures. He held a secret meeting with anti-mask medical professionals, signed an executive order that gives parents the final decision on whether their children will wear masks in school and promised to cut off state funding to any school district that forces children to put on face coverings.

DeSantis, who’s soared to the top of 2024 Republican national contenders list by carrying on the legacy of former president Donald Trump, even earned a sharp rebuke from Joe Biden, who on Wednesday said governors pushing anti-mask policies should “get out of the way of the people trying to do the right thing”. The following day, DeSantis fired back at a news conference.

“Well, let me tell you this: if you’re coming after the rights of parents in Florida, I’m standing in your way,” DeSantis said. “Well, I can tell you in Florida, the parents are going to make that decision.”

A person protests against school mask mandates in Tampa in May.
A person protests against school mask mandates in Tampa in May. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters

DeSantis’ threat to shut off state funding hasn’t stopped some school districts from bucking his ultimatum.

The Alachua county school board voted to require all students wear masks for the first two week of classes. The school board in Leon county, where the state capital of Tallahassee is located, implemented a mandatory mask rule for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. And after initially indicating it would comply with DeSantis’ order, the Broward county school district announced this week that it would keep its mask mandate in place.

While DeSantis’ hardline approach plays well with the Trumpian base of the Republican party, his stance is baffling considering recent state data on Covid-19 infections shows more children are getting sick and going to the hospital during this fourth wave, said Ceresta Smith, a 67-year-old retired Miami-Dade public schools teacher whose granddaughter lives with her.

“You are asking for trouble when our intensive care units are filling up and hospitals are getting overextended,” Smith said. “Just the thought that my granddaughter is going into a situation where they are not taking extreme precautions is worrisome.”

Between 23 and 30 July, Florida had 10,785 new Covid-19 infections among children under 12 for an average of 1,540 new cases a day, according to the state department of health. It’s more than a 600% increase compared to the same time period in June. The health department’s data also shows that pediatric Covid-19 hospitalizations averaged 32 cases a day during the week of July 23.

Amid Florida’s Covid-19 resurgence, even conservative educators are having a hard time accepting DeSantis’ hardline.

Shawn Beightol, a Miami-Dade high school teacher who is a Republican, said the governor is not following key principles of conservatism of allowing local governments to make their own decisions. Even though he is vaccinated, there is a small chance he can still catch COVID-19 and get sick, he noted. “By threatening to withhold funding, DeSantis is not practicing conservatism and he is removing control from local school boards,” Beightol said. “It’s more of a facist-type leadership model.”

By blocking school districts from enforcing student mask wearing, Beightol said, staffers and students at Florida public schools are in for another year of disruptions and calamity resulting from people exposed to infected individuals having to be isolated and quarantined. “Last year, at my school, we started at 80 percent capacity,” Beightol said. “Within a month we were at 50 percent capacity and then down to 10 percent capacity. I think this year will start out the same way.”

Beightol, who is the administrator for several Facebook pages where public schools teachers can vent, said educators fall into three categories: vocal pro-maskers, vocal anti-maskers and pro-maskers who stay out of the line of fire.

“I don’t think putting our lives and children’s lives are worth taking the risk,” Beightol said. “The right thing to do is to mandate masks until we know for sure what the efficacy of the vaccine shots are against the Delta variant or any other variant.”

Meanwhile, Miami dad Greenberg said he’s angry that DeSantis won’t adhere to the CDC guidance on student mask use. His daughter, who is 11, is still in the age group not yet eligible for COVID-19 inoculations, Greenberg said. And is not sure even his vaccinated son is safe.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that this variant poses serious risk to children,” Greenberg said. “It seems to me that our governor is content to send our kids into a slaughterhouse to score political points with his base. There is no excuse for not following the science.”

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