Hundreds of new COVID-19 cases prompted a Florida school district to institute a 60-day mask mandate this week, becoming the latest public institution to require face coverings as the hypercontagious Delta variant ravages the state.
The Orange County school board approved the mandate at its Tuesday meeting, one day after the district confirmed more than 400 new cases of COVID-19 contracted by students and employees. The mandate goes into effect at the start of next week for all schools from pre-K through 12th grade.
The district updates the public each day on its COVID-19 Dashboard, showing on Monday that 382 students and 37 employees tested positive. On Tuesday, the number of those quarantined was updated to 557.
Orange County is the ninth Florida county to institute a mask mandate, going against the wishes of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. An opponent of mask requirements in schools, DeSantis issued an executive order on July 30 banning such mandates, but allowing parents to decide whether to have their child wear one.
DeSantis’s order states that the “Florida Department of Health will enter rule-making in collaboration with the Florida Department of Education to protect parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.”
Orange County Public Schools’ policy does allow a medical exemption following the school board vote.
“I want to reemphasize, there is a medical exemption that will be recognized,” Dr. Barbara Jenkins, the OCPS superintendent, said during the meeting. “And we are not going to make that complex at all. It would be a letter from your doctor or physician’s assistant.”
But according to the district’s COVID-19 Health and Safety Procedures Manual, face coverings may be required if the CDC or other governmental entities update their guidance.
The CDC has done that, stating on Aug. 5 that “due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
Orange County joins Leon, Duval, Alachua, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties in implementing mask mandates at their schools in recent weeks.
In Hillsborough, a mask mandate is in place after a staggering 8,000 students and hundreds of employees were quarantined because of rising COVID numbers, according to the Washington Post. Last week, the Tampa Bay area had 8,400 students and 307 employees in isolation because of a positive test or close contact with someone who tested positive.
In Broward County, one of the first to require masks, officials are holding firm on the mandate despite a battle with the Florida Department of Education, which says the county is in violation of DeSantis’s executive order. Less than a week before school started, the county had three educators die of COVID, according to the Broward Teachers Union.
In Celebration, Fla., a town near Orlando founded by the Walt Disney Company, there isn’t a mandate, but a school is shutting down for a week because of the disease.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted multiple students, teachers, and staff members at Celebration K-8 during this past week,” the district said in a statement Tuesday. “Out of an abundance of caution, the Osceola School District has decided to move all students and teachers at Celebration K-8 to digital learning starting Wednesday, Aug. 25, through Friday, Aug. 27.”
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