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Some Florida Schools May Require Masks Even If It Excludes Them From State Funding

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's a back-to-school showdown underway in Florida right now. Governor Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold state funding from any school district that adopts a mask requirement this fall. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has been spreading and spreading in the state. Last week, Florida reported its highest daily case number since the beginning of the pandemic. Now some Florida school districts are weighing whether to require masks anyway, regardless of the governor's threats. It is a face-off that could repeat itself in other states that have banned school mask mandates. Reporter Kerry Sheridan of member station WUSF in Tampa is following the situation. She joins us from Sarasota. Hey there, Kerry.

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So give us a little bit more of the backdrop of what school leaders are dealing with here. What exactly has the governor, what's the state saying about how schools should be operating?

SHERIDAN: Well, on Friday, Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that prevents public schools from issuing mandatory mask policies. As you mentioned, he's threatening to withhold funding from schools that do require masks. And despite the CDC recommending that everyone mask up in K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status, the State Department of Education has claimed that the data doesn't support masking in schools. Some of their policies are being relaxed this year, too, like classroom sizes. They're expected to be full, so there's no social distancing. And in a lot of places, quarantine time is being reduced, too. Schools are also barred from requiring proof of vaccination or even evidence of recovery after a person has had a coronavirus infection.

KELLY: I imagine school districts are weighing a whole range of responses to these rules.

SHERIDAN: Well, you know, actually, most of them are not challenging the governor. They say their hands are tied. They say they don't want to risk losing funding from the state. And I think it's important to point out here that the big concern is that the vaccine is currently only approved for children 12 and up, which means that no elementary school students are even eligible for it yet.

KELLY: Yeah.

SHERIDAN: And we have cases rising in Florida. We do know of some school districts that are moving forward with mask mandates, and those include Duval County schools and Alachua County in the northern part of the state. But a lot of the school leaders are either staying quiet or they're just recommending mask-wearing. Here's Superintendent Addison Davis of the Hillsborough County School District, which is the eighth largest in the nation. He was speaking yesterday.

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ADDISON DAVIS: Whether it's through the CDC guidelines, whether it's through medical, local experts, they strongly recommend these, you know, students to be - who are not vaccinated - to wear the mask. And as a leader, I will stand with them and make certain that this is a strong recommendation within this community.

KELLY: It sounds like in the meantime, there's some questions around whether the governor's threats are even legal, Kerry.

SHERIDAN: Yeah, you know, I've spoken to lawyers and the Florida Education Association, which is the largest labor union in the southeast. They question the governor's authority to ban mask mandates in schools in this way. But they also said it would be up to the school districts or parents to bring a legal challenge. Now, usually it's up to local school boards to make rules for their own district, and that's something that's outlined in the state constitution. But things are still very much in flux. For instance, tomorrow we have an emergency meeting of the State Board of Education, and it's unclear right now what will come out of that.

KELLY: And we just have about 30 seconds or so left, but this is urgent. School's starting next week in a lot of Florida school districts. Where does this leave parents?

SHERIDAN: Parents in Florida are really split. You know, we have a nearby school district here in Manatee County that sent out a parent survey, and they found that about half want their children to wear masks at school and half do not. Now, this is not just a Florida problem. We have other states like Texas, South Carolina and Iowa that have all passed laws banning school mask mandates, so these problems could play out in those states, too.

KELLY: Kerry Sheridan of member station WUSF, thanks for reporting on everything that you're reporting there in Florida.

SHERIDAN: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.