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The final Florida school districts ditch their mask mandates

Citing declines in COVID-19 cases, three county school boards this week decided to end mask requirements for students at all grade levels.

The decisions by the boards in Alachua, Miami-Dade and Broward counties mean that all eight school districts that faced state financial penalties because of mask mandates have reversed course.

The Alachua and Miami-Dade boards voted to allow parents to submit forms to opt out elementary and middle-school students from mask policies. Both of the boards previously had voted to allow parents of high school students to opt out of mask requirements.

Broward County’s school board voted to make masks optional for all students without a “formal opt out process.”

The three school boards, along with boards in Palm Beach, Leon, Orange, Duval, and Brevard counties, faced financial penalties from the Florida Department of Education after they bucked efforts by the state to prevent mask mandates. The penalties were equal to the monthly salaries of board members.

The boards in Alachua, Miami-Dade, Broward, Leon, Orange and Duval filed a legal challenge against a Florida Department of Health rule that was a basis for the financial penalties. That rule said parents have “sole discretion” about whether students wear masks in schools.

Administrative Law Judge Brian Newman last week upheld the rule, writing that the health department struck the “right balance” and that attorneys for the school boards failed to prove that allowing parents to opt out of mask requirements facilitated the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The Miami-Dade, Broward, Alachua, Duval and Leon boards appealed Newman’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal, though Leon dropped out of the case this week.

“Our situation now is, we basically have no way forward in the courts. And I think it’s at that point time to put this aside. We also have lowering (COVID-19) numbers. We all know that could change. But we are in a better position than we’ve been in quite a while,” Alachua board member Robert Hyatt, who requested his board hold a special meeting Wednesday to address the mask requirements.

While Alachua parents initially will have to submit forms to opt out their children from mask requirements, they will not need to do so after students return from winter break on Jan. 4.

Also factoring into the Alachua board’s vote Wednesday was the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent authorization of COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11. Board members noted that students would have enough time to get fully vaccinated before the start of the next semester.

“That takes us through the end of the school year, is how I see it. And it gives the space for parents that are wanting to get their children vaccinated to do that and develop immunity,” board member Tina Certain said.

Miami-Dade’s mask opt-out is set to go into effect on Friday. In a statement on its website, the district said it will “continue to follow science, consult with our medical experts, and review our protocols on a weekly basis to identify opportunities for further adjustments of COVID-19 protocols.”

The Broward board on Tuesday voted to make masks optional for students starting Nov. 20. The district made clear that it also will follow part of the state health department rule that gives parents discretion about whether asymptomatic students go to school after being exposed to COVID-19.

Vickie Cartwright, interim schools superintendent in Broward, highlighted district efforts to get students vaccinated in a video about the mask policy change.

“By the time we break for Thanksgiving, we will have covered about 70 percent of our elementary schools as far as giving an opportunity at a school site, with parental permission, for a child to become vaccinated,” Cartwright said.

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida