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Masks are expected to become optional in Broward County schools this fall, but that could change if COVID-19 cases continue to surge.
Superintendent Robert Robert Runcie said masks would be “strongly recommended” when students return Aug. 18, but not mandatory if the School Board agrees during a July 27 workshop.
“Opening our schools is a fluid environment and is constantly changing,” Runcie said Tuesday. “As we see positivity rates continue to fluctuate, our recommendations could change.”
The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month loosened its previous guidance on masks. The agency said that vaccinated students and teachers don’t need them. Gov. Ron DeSantis has gone frrther, saying no Florida students should be forced to wear them.
Broward was the last district in South Florida to end its mask mandate. Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties both said in May that masks will be optional.
Schools will be open as normal as they were before the pandemic, Runcie said. The state is not allowing school districts to continue the remote learning options offered since the start of the pandemic, other than the small virtual programs they offered before the pandemic.
Runcie said classrooms, buses and cafeterias will likely run at full capacity this fall. Enhanced cleaning will still be in effect, he said.
Hollywood parent Adam Herman attended a recent School Board meeting urging the board to drop the mask requirements. He said he reviewed data and didn’t see a noticeable difference in cases between schools that required masks and those that didn’t.
He said Runcie is making the right decision.
“Students, coming off an extremely difficult year, need the emotional and social support that comes with true, hands-on, face-to-face schooling,” he said in a text message. “The community should be doing everything possible to return children’s lives back to 100% normal as they are the least susceptible cohort to COVID, but the most adversely affected by the stringent policies put in place over the last year.”
Broward students have seen a dramatic drop in student achievement since the pandemic. The number of students receiving F’s has more than doubled. Recent standardized test scores show that third-grade reading proficiency dropped from 60% to 53%, one of the biggest drops in the state.
But Coral Springs parent Lindsay Joly said Broward is making a mistake. She said she’s withdrawing her two kids from the district and enrolling them in Florida Virtual School. It was a decision she’d already made because her children are under 12, the minimum age to be vaccinated.
“My heart breaks for the parents who have no choice but to attend Broward schools when their children can’t be protected by vaccines,” Joly said. “They’re going to be around other kids who are not vaccinated.”
Although studies have shown schools, particularly elementary schools, have not been major sources of spread, Joly believes that’s because “they had masks and distancing. That all disappears.”
Most districts in the state have already stopped requiring masks, announced they would or never made them mandatory in the first place.
Districts that dropped mask requirements cited the wide availability of vaccinations and declining COVID-19 numbers as reasons for the changes. While vaccines are still easily accessible, Florida is now experiencing a surge in COVID cases.
As of July 14, the state leads the country with 21.4% of all new cases. The state is home to 6.5% of the U.S. population.
“We all know the pandemic is not over,” Runcie said. “Conditions continue to be carefully monitored and adjustments will be made as needed. We continue to communicate with and receive guidance from our local public health officials.”