School leaders aren’t ready to ditch masks, despite recommendation from Tallahassee

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Andrew Boryga, South Florida Sun Sentinel
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A day after Florida’s education commissioner said schools shouldn’t require face masks for students next year, districts in South Florida say they aren’t ready to abandon the facial coverings just yet.

When they do, they said, they’ll listen to public health experts first.

Those experts were baffled Thursday about what data Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran was relying on in a memo he sent to school districts.

“I would worry that his letter would be misconstrued as: The pandemic is over,” said Marissa Levine, professor of public health at the University of South Florida. “Unfortunately, it’s not.”

None of the schools in South Florida plan to follow Corcoran’s recommendation.

Palm Beach County: Masks are “still the plan right now,” said Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald. “We will monitor the situation closely as we move forward, but right now our board has established a policy that requires face masks.”

Broward County: “In this district we’ve always followed the guidance of the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] as well as our public health officials,” said Superintendent Robert Runcie. He noted that measures like positivity rates — the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests — have remained high in the county.

“We’ll see how things change over time,” he said. “I can’t give you a commitment one way or the other, other than tell you that we’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done and rely on the guidance we’re getting from the CDC and making sure that what we’re doing is aligned with Broward County.”

Miami-Dade County: Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he has consistently relied on medical and public health experts for guidance when making decisions about COVID related restrictions and mandates. “That is exactly what we plan to do as a school system.”

In his memo Wednesday, Corcoran said masks “serve no remaining good at this point in our schools.” He said they should be voluntary come next school year and that “the data shows us that districts’ face covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus.”

Levine, the USF professor, disagreed with Corcoran’s recommendation and said she was curious to see the “relevant health data” he said he consulted to come up with it.

“I’m not sure what data he’s referring to,” she said.

When asked about the data, the Florida Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Levine said the data she has seen from the CDC shows that when people in schools, including students, wear masks and social distance, they can control the spread of the virus and safely return to in-person instruction.

Compared to cases of COVID-19 in Florida as a whole, cases in schools have remained relatively low.

Since reopening in the fall of 2020, Broward Public Schools have reported 5,069 cases, though many could have been people exposed outside school. Palm Beach County Schools reported 3,317 cases, and Miami Dade Public Schools reported 8,482.

The vast majority of those cases have been found in K-12 students in the schools, rather than teachers.

Statewide, kids under 18 make up about 12% of Florida’s 2 million COVID-19 cases.

The fact that schools tend to have far fewer outbreaks than the general population is a sign that the mitigation steps are working, Levine said, not that they should be rolled back.

“We’re still in the pandemic,” she said. “It seems to me it’s not the time for the removal of what [Corcoran] calls ‘broad sweeping, mandatory face covering policies.’”

Levine said it is important, particularly in South Florida, to take a more gradual approach. “We really have to take it a day or week at a time and see what direction things are going.”

Recent nationwide school guidance from the CDC recommends that all children over 2 years old continue to wear masks, including in school.

They recommend clear masks or cloth masks with a plastic panel for children learning to read, students learning a new language and children with disabilities who need to see the proper shape of the mouth for making appropriate vowel sounds.

A March CDC study on COVID outbreaks in schools said they are mostly rare. But when they do occur, it tends to be in schools that loosen guidelines like mandatory masks and social distancing.

“When prevention strategies — especially mask use and physical distancing — are consistently and correctly used, the risk of transmission in the school environment is decreased,” the study said.

Like all three South Florida superintendents, Levine said she hopes that more vaccinations will allow the state to reach a point where loosened mask restrictions make sense.

For now, what should be stressed, she said, is the need for somewhere around 80% of the eligible population to be vaccinated come the fall for those loosened restrictions to make sense.

“That’s the message we need,” she said.

Andrew Boryga can be reached at 954-356-4533 or aboryga@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @borywrites.