Jacobs: Orange County exploring school mask mandate with no opt-out

Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties became the third and fourth school districts in Florida to adopt stricter mask mandates Wednesday, a day after school boards in Broward and Alachua counties faced threats of severe penalties for defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.

The Hillsborough County school board, which oversees the state’s third-largest district with more than 206,000 students in the Tampa area, voted 5-2 to adopt a 30-day mask mandate with a medical opt-out for students, teachers and staff. Most school districts have adopted optional mask policies or given options to parents to easily opt out of requirements. 

Also Wednesday, the Miami-Dade school board passed a similar mandate with a medical exemption by a 7-1 vote. In Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest school district with 334,000 students, a task force of medical experts recommended students be required to wear masks when they return to classrooms next week.

In Broward County, the state’s second-largest district with 261,000 students, two teachers and an assistant teacher died from COVID-19 last week.

Despite this pressure, the Alachua County School Board, which serves nearly 30,000 students in the Gainesville area, voted Tuesday night to extend its mask mandate for another two months. Alachua’s mandate requires a doctor’s note, violating the governor’s executive order to let students opt out without requiring any medical recommendations, referrals, or permissions, the station reported.

Orange County may join the list of districts defying an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis banning schools from imposing mask mandates unless parents can opt-out of the requirements.  

 Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs said the school board will discuss the issue when it convenes next Tuesday. 

Jacobs has lamented being in a position of having "no viable option" to implement a mask mandate that did not include the opt-out clause for parents.  She said it was "the worst feeling I've ever had being in elected office."

Jacobs, who served as Orange County's mayor from 2010 to 2018, appears to be pivoting on the issue in comments she made during a school board COVID-19 safety protocol work session held on Thursday.

Orange County is of the nation's largest school districts and the fourth-largest in Florida.

Board members in Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties took action Wednesday after seeing the numbers of COVID-19 cases spike in those districts. 

The school year there began a week ago and already thousands of children are being sent home because teachers and classmates are infected with the delta variant of the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, on Thursday, a Florida judge ruled that a lawsuit filed by parents who are challenging Governor DeSantis' executive order banning student masks mandates in schools can move forward.  The order clears the way for a three-day hearing next week on whether to block enforcement of the law. 

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