Florida schools should not mandate face masks next school year, education commissioner says

Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | April 15, 2021

Florida’s public schools should not mandate face masks next school year because “they serve no remaining good at this point in our schools,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a memo to district superintendents.

In the memo, Corcoran said face masks should be voluntary for the 2021-22 school year, not required. Currently, because of the coronavirus pandemic, most Central Florida school districts mandate face masks on their campuses, as do many other districts across the state. The final decision on mask mandates for the next school year likely will be made by individual school boards.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend the wearing of face masks in schools as a way to stop the spread of the virus. Local health departments do too, though their recommendations have focused on the current school year not the coming one.

Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County teachers union, said dropping mask mandates doesn’t make sense when the number of virus cases has been climbing in Florida this month.

“I just think it’s incredibly premature and irresponsible to put something like that out there,” said Doromal, of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association. Dropping mask requirements will make teachers nervous and likely some parents, too, she said.

“I can imagine some parents aren’t going to want to put their children in school without a mandate,” she added.

Corcoran’s memo sent Wednesday said face masks are a “personal decision” and families should be able to decide what is best for them.

But, he wrote, “Broad sweeping mandatory face covering policies serve no remaining good at this point in our schools … We ask that districts, which are currently implementing a mandated face covering policy, revise their policy to be voluntary for the 2021-22 school year.”

Lake County Schools Superintendent Diane Kornegay wrote a letter to parents last week saying she hoped face masks could be optional next school year, though she said the school district would not change its safety protocols for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

But Kornegay said with more people vaccinated and lower virus positivity rates she hoped things could change by August when the new school year begins. “I’m asking everyone to hang in with us just a little bit longer,” she wrote in her April 8 letter. “If we continue on the path we’re on, we should be able to leave masks behind us and welcome in a more normal school year come August.”

Districts’ face mask rules do “not impact the spread of the virus,” Corcoran wrote, citing a review of district policies, the number of students on campus versus those doing school online and “relevant health data.”

Masks “may impede instruction,” particularly for students learning English or those with disabilities, who would benefit from seeing a teacher’s mouth and full face, Corcoran said. Such policies, he added, also may have prompted some parents to keep their children at home, though in-person learning would be best for them academically.

Though school leaders said most students and staff have adjusted to wearing masks, face-mask rules remain controversial in places with some parents, including a group in Seminole County, repeatedly urging their local school boards to do away with mask mandates.

A spokesman for the Seminole County school district said the district has not made a decision yet about whether face masks will be optional for the next school year.

“It’s definitely something we will be taking into consideration and will discuss further,” working with local medical experts, Seminole County government and the Florida Department of Health, said Michael Lawrence, in an email. “At present, we haven’t made any specific decisions regarding the 2021-2022 school year. However, those discussions are planned and will be had in the near future. As soon as those decisions have been made, we will immediately share them with our families, staff, & community.”

A spokesman for Orange County Public Schools shared a similar message, too.

“We have received the face-mask policy information and recommendation from Commissioner Corcoran,” spokesman Michael Ollendorf wrote in an email. “Our school board and administration will use the recommendation along with the guidance of local expertise to evaluate the face-mask policy as the new school year approaches.”

Image: A kindergarten class at Pine Crest Elementary school in Sanford, on Friday, February 5, 2021. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)

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