TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's 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.
It came days after YouTube removed a video of a coronavirus discussion organized by Gov. Ron DeSantis for violating the platform's ban on posting disinformation, by contradicting the consensus of public health authorities that mask-wearing is effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. DeSantis slammed the removal on Monday as tech-giant censorship.
Corcoran, who was appointed on DeSantis' recommendation, 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.
Statewide, about 33 percent of people in Florida have received at least one vaccination shot and 20 percent are fully vaccinated, according to federal health data. Since March 2020, Florida has recorded 2,141,686 cases of COVID-19, and 34,829 deaths, state records show.
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.
Many school districts in Florida have already announced that students are expected to return to campus to start the next school year.
DeSantis never issued a mask mandate, and ordered local governments last September to stop collecting fines for mask order violations. He followed up in March with an order that wiped out fines imposed on people or businesses for violating coronavirus-related ordinances.