JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Children should not wear face masks in school.
That was the stern message from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, suggesting that local school districts should get rid of their mask mandates which have been in place for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"These kids do not need to be wearing these masks, OK? I'm sorry, they don't," DeSantis said during a news conference at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville. "We need to be able to let them be kids and let them act normally. And that's what should be the case in the fall throughout the school year."
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The governor, however, stopped short of issuing any mandates or executive orders of his own related to facial coverings in schools.
"What's our direction to the school districts and the other schools? Our direction is relatively simple. Have a normal school year," DeSantis said. "That's what we want, and that's what will happen."
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School districts in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties all currently require students and staff members to wear masks inside school buildings, with the exceptions of when they're eating and drinking while seated, and during physical education and recess, depending on the district.
Officials with the School District of Indian River County announced last week they're planning to make masks optional for students next school year.
Leaders in the Martin County School District could discuss potential changes to their face mask policy during an emergency meeting on Wednesday.
Palm Beach, St. Lucie, and Okeechobee County school districts have not announced any changes to their face mask policies, but said they're continuing to monitor the latest with the COVID-19 pandemic as the new school year approaches.
There are dueling petitions to both eliminate and keep the School District of Palm Beach County's face mask policy.
A group called "Unmask Palm Beach County Kids" is demanding the district end its mandate and instead make facial coverings optional.
"You want to wear you mask, wear your mask," said Julie Damsker, the group's organizer, during a rally last Friday. "But my kids are not doing well with one, and it’s my choice. It’s my child."
However, a counter petition is asking the Palm Beach County School Board to keep the mask mandate in place "until community spread of COVID is extremely low."
"We’re just very concerned with the fact that there’s going to be no distance learning in the fall, and classrooms are going to be likely at capacity," said parent Meagan Bell, who started that petition and is aiming to gather 2,000 signatures and present it at next week's school board meeting.
While many parents are eager to see the mask requirements eased, it appears that teachers may not feel the same way.
According to a recent survey of more than 3,100 Palm Beach County educators, 68.9% of those polled said they believe the current on-campus mask mandate should remain in effect at the start of the 2021/22 academic year.
Last month, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to school district superintendents throughout the state, urging them to eliminate their face mask mandates and instead make facial coverings optional.
Corcoran said the mandates in schools "do not impact the spread of the virus" based on health data.
"Face coverings are a personal decision and certainly families and individuals should maintain their ability to make a decision that is unique to their circumstances," Corcoran wrote. "Broad sweeping mandatory face covering policies serve no remaining good at this point in our schools."
The educator commissioner went on to say that face masks "inhibit peer-to-peer learning," and may also "impede instruction" for "students with disabilities and English language learners who benefit from viewing a teacher's face and mouth."