Following months of debate, legal challenges, and a special legislative session on the matter, it seems the drawn-out discussion about who decides whether students wear masks in schools during the COVID pandemic has reached a conclusion.
The result: Florida school districts are forbidden from requiring masks in classrooms unless parents can opt their students out. It’s now law. And districts are complying.
But officials haven’t closely and persistently tracked the number of students who opted out of mask requirements on a statewide basis. Inconsistencies in mask policies throughout the state complicate the issue further.
It’s going to be difficult to know just how many students are wearing masks compared to how many are not, now that the question is truly up to the parents.
Andrea Messina, executive director for the Florida School Boards Association, said that local school boards do not have to report data regarding masks to her organization, so she doesn’t know how many students opted out, either.
She speculates that more details could be available soon, as school board members gather for a conference next week and will discuss COVID policies.
“We’ll have a much better feel for things because the board members will tell us the status in their districts,” Messina told the Phoenix.
Jared Ochs, a communication staffer for the Florida Department of Education, told the Phoenix that the state agency wasn’t tracking how many students were wearing masks. He noted that the variation in mask policies would have made the data difficult to track.
“Some districts had different policies. Some districts had no policies,” Ochs said. “There’s a lot of nuanced variables.”
The agency was more concerned about whether school boards were “following the law,” and not necessarily with how many parents wanted their kids exempt from mask mandates.
The issue involves the concept of “parental rights” — meaning parents’ ability to make decisions for their children.
“What we were mostly concerned about is that they [school boards] were just giving the option [of parental opt-outs],” Ochs told the Phoenix.
Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis wanted to ensure that parents could decide whether their children wore a mask at school, citing a new law called the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” and mandated that the Florida Board of Education and the Florida Department of Health create emergency rules to protect a parent’s right to decide.
The Florida Constitution gives school boards authority to operate schools, and several districts opted for strict mask mandates when COVID cases spiked earlier in the 2021-22 school year.
However, that authority is not uncontested — during one of several legal challenges to its mask policies, the DeSantis administration in August cited constitutional language establishing that the State Board of Education, which administers the Department of Education, “has such supervision of the system of free public education as established by law.”
The debate came to a head when the State Board withheld the salaries of members of eight school boards that implemented strict masks mandates.
School boards often heard from hordes of parents and other concerned citizens who insisted such a decision be left to parents.
Now that the recent special session made certain that school districts can’t require masks, it’s not clear how many families were passionately against masking their children.
Some districts have changed their mask policies to allow students to opt-out of mask mandates with parents’ permission.
In fact, the last school district to loosen its mask mandate was in Broward County, which as of Nov. 19 allows parental opt-outs — that was the last school day before students there started Thanksgiving break. It’s not yet clear how many students will take advantage of the new mask policy until they go back to school on Monday.
The opt-out forms that certain districts required parents to fill out offer some insight, however.
For example, the Miami-Dade school district was among those sanctioned by the state for its strict mask mandate. Not long after, the district loosened the policy, allowing parents to opt their students out of the mask requirement.
Elmo Lugo, a communications staffer with the South Florida district, said in an email to the Phoenix that, as of Nov. 17, administrators had received about 20,000 forms out of 333,000 students, the number enrolled as of spring 2021 according to data from the Florida Department of Education.
That means about 6 percent of students opted out of masks as of mid-November.
But the data will be harder to track now, as the district does not require forms to opt-out anymore. “We no longer have a mechanism to tally the masks opt-outs,” Lugo said in an email to the Phoenix.
Similarly, the Orange County school district formerly required notice of parents’ intention to opt-out.
“As of Aug. 23, 2021, the district had received 15,980 mask opt-out notes from parents, which is just over 7 percent of our enrollment that totals 206,000 students,” spokesman Michael Ollendorf said in an email.
But Orange no longer requires parent notes, either. So it’s not clear how many students are wearing masks.
Some districts never required formal opt-out notices.
Isabel Mascareñas, speaking for the Pinellas County School District, said that, according to her observations, about half of students have been wearing masks, depending on the school.
“Some less. Some more. Some about the same,” she told the Phoenix. “It's very difficult to pin that. That’s just from my visit from schools.” The Pinellas district serves nearly 96,000 students, according to 2021 spring enrollment data.
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