Florida Education Chief Says Masks Should be Voluntary for Next School Year

florida schools mask
Volunteer Jennifer Smith, left, escorts first grader Zachary Etienne to a classroom on the first day of school at Fox Trail Elementary School, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Davie, Fla. Broward County, Florida schools phased reopening for face-to-face eLearning. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida education commissioner has asked superintendents across the state to update their policies to make facial coverings voluntary rather than mandatory for students, teachers and staff in upcoming school year.

In a memo sent Wednesday, Richard Corcoran said that “Florida has once again proven that one-size-fits-all policies do not meet the unique needs of individual students or their families.”

Corcoran also claimed that data shows mask policies don’t impact the spread of the virus and “serve no remaining good at this point in our schools.”

His memo didn’t cite any particular data to back up the claim, which goes against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that mask-wearing in schools — along with social distancing and frequent hand-washing — is essential to stopping the spread.

Corcoran said masks may “unintentionally create a barrier” for students and families who would otherwise choose in-person instruction if such a policy were not in place. And, in bold underlined wording, the memo said masks may impede instruction for students with disabilities and those who speak English as a second language because they benefit from seeing a teacher’s face and mouth.

“Right now, our schools are safer than the communities at large,” Corcoran wrote. “This safety record should only increase next school year with the increased availability of vaccines.”

The memo made no mention of whether school systems should require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, like they do for other contagious diseases, once vaccines are approved for their ages.

United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats told the Miami Herald she takes issue with Corcoran’s request to make masks voluntary, not mandatory.

“Even with an increasing number of people getting vaccinated, safety measures must continue to be implemented,” she said in a statement. “The only way to safely and successfully reopen our schools is by following CDC guidelines, including the use of masks, handwashing, and socially distancing. Our priority will continue to be ensuring the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff.”

Orange County Classroom Teachers Association president Wendy Doromal told the Orlando Sentinel that making masks voluntary in schools doesn’t make sense when the number of virus cases have been on the rise in Florida this month.

“I just think it’s incredibly premature and irresponsible to put something like that out there,” she said, adding that dropping mask requirements will make teachers and some parents nervous.

In South Florida, the Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, Robert Runcie says the district’s COVID-19 measures will align with that of the County.

“We try to make sure that what we do aligns with the county’s requirements. So Broward county still has a mask mandate requirement in place, so we will too,” he said during a press conference last week.

Many school districts in Florida, like Broward, have already announced that students are expected to return to campus to start the next school year, but little details have been given regarding the safety protocols for students.

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