Beginning Monday, August 30th, Orange County Public Schools will defy Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and implement a universal mask mandate for all preK-12 students and adults. After a long and thoughtful discussion during the School Board meeting, board members gave Superintendent Barbara Jenkins direction to make face masks mandatory for everyone.
The universal mask mandate will last until October 30th. The mask mandate will not be required for any student with a note from a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant or an employee with a medical exemption. But parental opt-out is no longer an option. According to the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, less than 8% of students submitted opt-out notes but some parents report on social media their children claim some schools have much higher percentage of students not wearing face coverings.
Superintendent Jenkins did promise the timeline proposed for the Orange County Public Schools universal face mask policy could change if COVID-19 case numbers fall sharply. So far this school year, OCPS has already confirmed more than 2,300 total cases, and about 1,800 are students. OCPS employee vaccination rate was reported to be over 60 percent now as well.
School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs previously warned the face mask issue was not resolved, and she has been a champion for doing more to protect children from COVID-19 and the delta variant. She knows the passions on both sides of this issue are strong, and in previous mask discussions she stated “as much as I hate to have people unhappy with me, I can take people being very unhappy with me.”
Teachers and parents were also pressuring the school board members to act on masks. “We hope the superintendent and school board members here in Orange County will join with the other seven districts representing over 40% of the students in the State of Florida and mandate masks as on measure to keep students safe,” Andrew Spar, President of the Florida Education Association, said prior to the meeting.
This is not the end of the fight either. Gov. DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatened to take away funding from school districts that defy the executive order in place. “We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” Education Commissioner Corcoran said. “These are the initial consequences to their intentional refusal to follow state law and state rule to purposefully and willingly violate the rights of parents. This is simply unacceptable behavior.”
That led the Biden administration to step into the school mask issue. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to fund the districts despite threats from Gov. DeSantis. “The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” U.S. Secretary Cardona said in a letter.
The school board also asked for a meeting to be scheduled to clarify the current school board policy EBBA – Disease Prevention; Face Coverings.