Update: the 60-day mask mandate expired Saturday, Oct. 30 without renewal. Students can once again opt out with a parent note.

Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis passed an executive order prohibiting schools from requiring masks without allowing students to universally opt out. 

Despite this, the OCPS school board passed a mask mandate that only allowed students to opt out if they provided a doctor’s note affirming that it was medically necessary to do so. Now, DeSantis’s threats of cuts to school funding and school board salaries are coming to fruition. 

School board members will unfairly lose a month’s worth of pay for holding firm on their mask mandate. 

“The loss of my salary is irrelevant when it comes to the safety of our children and community,” District 7 board member Melissa Byrd said in an interview with Spectrum News. 

However stoic board members may be, cutting salaries simply for attempting to keep students and employees safe is reprehensible. 

Although COVID-19 positivity rates have now sunk to 3.8% in Florida, in August, when the school board changed the mask policy, positivity rates had climbed to 20.5%. While the situation may evolve in the coming months, COVID still presented a clear danger to OCPS students and teachers in August. At the time, Florida led the nation in both the overall rate of hospitalization and the rate of pediatric hospitalization

Additionally, the percent of Floridians who have received both doses of the vaccine remains below 70%, a rate that allows the virus to continue to spread. Children below the age of 12 still have not been authorized to receive any form of vaccine, rendering them vulnerable to COVID and its long term effects. Nearly 80,000 students attend elementary school in OCPS, most of whom fall into the below-12 age group and are not able to receive the vaccine yet. 

Of course, research indicates that children typically exhibit less severe symptoms than adults, or don’t exhibit any symptoms. This understanding fuels the argument that wearing a mask should be a personal decision made by parents. However, the virus still puts children at risk, and making the “personal decision” to not wear a mask actively endangers other children. 

According to Harvard Health Publishing, COVID causes some children to develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which can lead to life threatening heart problems. Additionally, with no virtual option equivalent to LaunchED, children with health conditions had to come back to school in person this year, and are more vulnerable to the spread of COVID. Although options like Florida Virtual School and OCPS virtual exist, in person instruction is the only form that allows for face to face instruction and collaboration, pushing children with health risks and disabilities back into schools. Allowing all children to opt out of masks with only a parent note endangers these children. 

As a punishment for doing their best to keep students and employees safe, DeSantis has chosen to cut the school board’s salaries. While the school board is motivated by preserving health, the same can not be said for DeSantis. He has plenty of political motivation to maintain his hands-off approach to ending the pandemic, as doing so fuels his conservative base and strengthens his 2024 bid for president. In fact, he faced immediate backlash from his supporters for supporting COVID vaccines, indicating that any push to implement safety measures would be met with anger from his base. 

Now, the school board is not only facing a loss of salary, they also deal with mask-protestors who harass them and threaten their lives and privacy. Since installing metal detectors in the entrance to the school board meetings, numerous guns, knives and tasers have been confiscated. This behavior is a deranged response to a decision that ruled in favor of public health. 

Soon, the 60-day mask mandate will end and the school board will have the chance to change the policy. Given the drop in positivity rates, one could make the case for a looser mask policy in the coming months. However, when the school board convened in August, they faced a difficult decision: disobey the governor’s orders and face the consequences, or let thousands of children and teachers go to school in unsafe conditions. They should not be punished for choosing to keep students and teachers safe.

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