Starting Monday, Aug. 30, students at Orange County Public Schools will be required to wear masks.
The Orange County School Board on Tuesday, Aug. 24, directed Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins to implement the mask mandate, which removes the opt-out option parents had at the beginning of the school year.
The new mandate is in place for 60 days, through Oct. 30. It eliminates the ability for parents opt their children out of the mask mandate. According to data from the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, only 7.6% — 12,884 — of all OCPS students opted out of wearing masks. That means 92.4% — 169,114 — of students already were complying.
Despite the large percentage of students already wearing masks, OCPS on Aug. 23 reported its single highest day of new COVID-19 cases — 382 new confirmed coronavirus cases among students and 37 cases among faculty.
“There is no other motivation for me as a School Board member, other than to keep our children and our employees safe,” Chairwoman Teresa Jacobs said. “This is not about my salary.”
The change defies Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that prohibits schools from requiring masks. OCPS is one of 10 Florida school districts to defy the order. The others are Broward, Alachua, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Sarasota and Palm Beach counties.
School Board District 4 Pam Gould said she was in favor of moving forward with action against the rule in the meeting. She spoke of vulnerable children with a higher risk of being exposed to the virus.
"Right now, our ability to protect those kids and provide them education is not there," Gould said.
District 7 School Board member Melissa Byrd agreed.
"We have an obligation to provide the children in the community an education and a safe school, and we can't provide that education to them if they have to quarantine or if they get sick," she said.
District 1 School Board member Angie Gallo said she was concerned about liability and legal ramifications of defying DeSantis' order.
"I know that we need to do what we need to do; I know that we don't have to like it, but as soon as the numbers come down and we can go back to optional and then keep going down from there that is what I would prefer," she said. "I am sad that we have to do it, but we have to put the safety of our children first."
The issue has also become a particularly polarizing topic among parents in recent weeks, and many were quick to offer their opinion on the OCPS' decision.
“Dr. Jenkins and the board were advised by their counsel in the meeting that they were breaking the law and choose to do this anyway; unreal,” Dayna Toby said on Facebook. “Doesn’t matter if you like/believe the law is wrong — until it is reversed, they still have to follow it. Nice example they just set for all the parents/children.”
David Terry said: “I really hope the state withholds money and removes the School Board. When the feds come in to the rescue, they need to be sued to stop it. There is nothing in the COVID relief bills that allows the Federal DOE to step in here.”
One parent said she recently moved to Florida because of the freedom it offered to her children.
“Moved here from Hawaii just over a week ago to allow my kids to play sports and not wear a mask in school,” Kaili Walters said. “I’m not a happy mama right now.”
However, some also wrote in support of the School Board’s decision.
“About time,” Mark Kaley said. “Stand up for our kids and stand up to the buffoon in Tallahassee trying to make Florida a fascist state. This is what America fought against in World War I.”
Ali Elhajj agreed: “Smart decision by the board. Masks reduce the probability of infection and fewer infections reduce the probability of mutation. Kudos to the board for following the science and looking out for the most vulnerable.”
Students will be able to opt out of the mask mandate through a medical exception only if they have an authorized note from a doctor.