Orange County schools to end face mask mandate for students starting Monday

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | October 28, 2021

Orange County students can stop wearing face masks to classes on Monday, if their parents provide a note opting them out, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said in a recorded message to families late Thursday afternoon.

Orange County Public Schools’ 60-day mask mandate expires Saturday and Jenkins said it would not be extended in part because of the “significant reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases in Orange County.”

Jenkins said she consulted with the Orange County School Board and the district’s local medical advisors before making her decision. She said Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ announcement Wednesday that he was allowing his state-of-emergency order for the county to expire also played into her decision.

Demings said the emergency order was not needed after the COVID-19 positivity rate hovered at about 3.5% for the past two weeks, below the World Health Organization’s 5% threshold for considering the virus under control.

The district’s employees and parents and other visitors must still wear face masks in schools, Jenkins said, a mandate likely to remain in place until Dec. 3, though that could change based on COVID-19 data.

Students must still wear masks unless they have a note from their parents. That was the rule when the school year started and about 8% of the district’s more than 190,000 students were excused.

But on Aug. 24, the school district agreed to a 60-day mask mandate because COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations were surging in the county. The mandate began Monday, Aug. 30, requiring students to wear face masks while inside school buildings.

That decision aligned the district with the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it also resultedin a legal fight with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, which decided to withhold some state money as a penalty.

State rules say parents, not school boards, should decide whether their children wear masks at schools.

Superintendent Barbara Jenkins during the Orange County School Board meeting on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins during the Orange County School Board meeting on Tuesday, October 26, 2021. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel)

As happened across Florida, the mandate angered some parents who said it violated the governor’s order and Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, a new 2021 law that gives parents the right to make medical decisions for their children.

But it pleased others who argued a universal mask mandate was the best way to keep everyone on campus safe, especially when children ages 5 to 11 are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Orange school district was one of 11 that initially defied DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, requiring masks for all students except those with medical exemptions.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, both parents hoping the mask mandate would end and those urging the board to extend it until the winter break starts shared their views. The latter group argued a six-week extension likely would give younger students a chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine if their parents wanted.

Currently, only children 12 and older are eligible for the shots but approval for younger kids is expected in a few weeks.

Catherine Hagan told board members she appreciated that they “did not give into political pressure or threats” in August when they adopted the mask mandate and urged them to keep it in place through Dec. 17, when winter break starts.

“Please don’t take away their only protection before then,” she said. “Finish the job by giving us six more weeks.”

But other parents told the board it should not have adopted a mandate in violation of state rules and should let it expire Saturday as planned.

Lauren Miller told the board she pulled her two boys from OCPS because of the mask mandate, enrolling them instead in a private school where masks are optional.

“Everyone is healthy and happy,” Miller said.

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