Orlando Sentinel | By Monivette Cordeiro and Leslie Postal | August 30, 2021
A proposal to institute a mask mandate in Osceola County public schools failed Monday evening when the school board rejected it following a heated emergency meeting.
A school board member had called for the meeting to discuss putting in place a mask mandate after a judge’s decision last week that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on them was unconstitutional.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper’s ruling has prompted school districts to revisit mask mandates as they continue to record growing numbers of COVID-19 cases on their campuses.
The Volusia County school board will consider a mask mandate Tuesday and the Seminole County school board will hold a meeting to discuss a mandate Thursday. The Brevard County School Board voted 3-2 Monday for a 30-day mask requirement.
Osceola School Board Member Terry Castillo, who proposed the motion to require masks that was defeated Monday, said she felt strongly that the board must protect students and staff amid a local surge of COVID-19 infections. The latest figures for Osceola public schools show 919 students and 173 staff members have tested positive for the virus, while more than 5,000 children and nearly 300 staff members are under quarantine.
The Osceola school board passed a 30-day mask mandate two weeks ago, but it excluded high schoolers, who are old enough to be vaccinated, and parents of younger kids could opt their children out with a note — as DeSantis’ rules require.
The district shut down Celebration K-8 School for two days last week because of so many cases among students and staff at the 1,600-student school.
“I know it’s unpopular, and I’m OK with that,” she said. “… We had people in this very community pass away very recently. I cannot in good conscience ignore that because it happens to be unpopular today.”
Members of the public who spoke to the school board were divided on a mask mandate, with one person calling it “child abuse” while another called it necessary to save lives.
“It’s not tyranny,” Rita Harris told the board. “It’s called protection.”
“Enough is enough,” Karen Baker said before the board. “Take the masks off the children.”
Castillo’s motion was met with shouts from the public and fellow Board Member Jon Arguello accusing her of inappropriately referencing the death of a school employee in support of her motion. Earlier in the meeting, he had called mask mandates a “waste of time” and a “political stunt.”
“You don’t use people’s health issues … to push your agenda,” he said. “It added absolutely nothing to your argument and shame on you.”
Other board members declined to second Castillo’s motion and it died.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended everyone in K-12 schools wear face masks because so many children are too young to be vaccinated and the delta coronavirus variant is so contagious.
Ten school districts, including Orange County, adopted mask mandates without opt-out language in recent weeks even as the DeSantis administration threatened them with the loss of state funding for actions it argued violated state law.
But a judge ruled Friday that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school face mask mandates was unconstitutional and that the state could not take action against districts that required all students to wear face coverings.
That ruling was a defeat for the governor, who has insisted parents — not school boards — should decide whether their children wear face masks at school, and a victory for parents and educators who said universal masking is needed in the face of surging COVID-19 cases.
A spokesperson for DeSantis said an appeal would be filed quickly.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Education continued its push Monday to sanction districts, announcing that it had withheld money from the Alachua and Broward school districts, the first to impose mask mandates that defied DeSantis’ order.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, in a statement, said the state was “going to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children” and punish school officials who “pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”
The amount withheld was equivalent to the monthly salaries of the school board members who voted for the mask mandates.