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National

Florida School Districts That Require Masks, May Have Their Funding Cut

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We turn now to Florida. It is the center for the nation's resurgence of COVID, driven by the delta variant. This comes as classes resume in parts of the state next week. And children under 12 still cannot get a vaccine. So school districts grapple with an issue - what to do about face masks? Florida's governor says school districts cannot require students to wear them. NPR's Greg Allen has more.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Since the pandemic began, Governor Ron DeSantis has opposed many public health restrictions imposed by the federal government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local officials. Following a recommendation by the CDC that school districts require all students and staff to wear face masks when classes resume, DeSantis acted once again. He announced he was signing an executive order giving parents the right to choose whether their kids wear face masks at school.

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RON DESANTIS: I want to empower parents to be able to make the best decisions they can for the well-being of their children.

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ALLEN: That announcement upended health and safety plans being developed by Florida school districts, including Broward County. A few days earlier, the school board had voted to make face masks mandatory for all students. On Monday, after DeSantis threatened to withhold state funds from districts that didn't comply with his order, the board met once again and reversed that decision. At that meeting, attorney and Democratic State Senator Gary Farmer spoke and urged the board to defy the governor. Under Florida's constitution, Farmer said DeSantis has no legal authority to decide whether or not face masks are required or to withhold funds.

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GARY FARMER: It is solely up to you whether to require masks in school or not, just like it's up to every other school districts.

ALLEN: In the Gainesville area this week, Alachua County also decided to defy the order. The school board there approved a policy requiring face masks in all classrooms for the first two weeks of classes. But despite the governor's forceful tone, there's a lot of uncertainty about what his order means. More specifics are expected. But it will be up to the departments of health and education to issue them. And it's not clear when they'll be ready. In Jacksonville, classes resume next week in Duval County Schools. And the area is seeing one of the nation's biggest spikes in COVID infections. At a school board meeting this week, Claire Sowers said, with the rise of the delta variant, it may be more risky for her three children than last year. She asked the school board to defy DeSantis and make face masks mandatory for all.

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CLAIRE SOWERS: Our kids have anxiety about going back to school in an uncertain environment. So I thank you for considering. I don't wish to be in your shoes. Thank you. I know you will do what's best. Call him on his bluff.

ALLEN: School board members heard from dozens of parents and health care workers who said universal face masks are the best way to keep children and adults safe while the delta variant sweeps through their community. But there are many in Florida who support DeSantis for his opposition to mandatory face masks and other COVID restrictions. Parent Melissa Bernhardt called DeSantis a stand-up guy who's listening to people like her.

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MELISSA BERNHARDT: Let the people that want to wear a mask wear them. I'm not against somebody wearing a mask. I'm against somebody making the choice for my child.

ALLEN: In the end, the Duval County School Board voted to require face masks but to allow parents to opt out at their individual schools. And Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen had a plea for parents and children, please, mask.

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ELIZABETH ANDERSEN: These are hundreds of thousands of heartbeats that will come into our building. Their lives matter. Your life matters. As a community, we have the opportunity to stand together to get through this once again.

ALLEN: In the meantime, Florida's board of education is meeting today to discuss whether children who are required to wear face masks may be able to claim that it poses a danger to their health or education. That could allow them to qualify for state-sponsored scholarships to attend private schools.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.