But one thing is clear: Our vote, no matter the consequences, was necessary.
Covid-19 cases in Florida have skyrocketed to record-high numbers in the last few weeks, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant. On Friday, Florida’s health department reported an increase in the Covid-19 positivity rate for the ninth week in a row, reaching nearly 20%. A staggering tally of more than 150,000 cases were reported this week. Moreover, hospitals in our state saw 166% more Covid-19 hospitalizations this past week than during the state’s last peak in July 2020, according to an analysis by the Florida Hospital Association.
What makes this even more unfortunate is that it is happening right as 2.7 million children across Florida start their school year. This has been an especially difficult time for parents with school age children who want to ensure their kids’ health. This is why the use of masks, proven to help reduce the spread of the virus, has become so important but, unfortunately, so political and controversial.
For the last several weeks, my colleagues on the Miami-Dade school board, and school board members around the state of Florida, have been under extreme political pressure by DeSantis to vote against requiring students to wear masks. This is due to the governor’s political crusade against any local measures taken to protect Floridians from Covid-19, which has taken the lives of over 42,000 people in the state. On Friday, the Florida State Board of Education sent an order to Broward and Alachua counties’ school board officials stating that they have 48 hours to allow an opt-out option for masks in their schools or the state will begin withholding funds, according to documents shown to CNN.
As I have been saying publicly for weeks, when I cast my vote on whether to require masks, I would be voting based on the science and advice of medical professionals. While I normally would not consider Covid-19 safety protocols to be partisan or political, DeSantis has made this issue divisive with his rhetoric and his threats.
In the weeks running up to our vote, I received mostly respectful messages from parents on both sides of the mask issue. Unfortunately, due to the governor’s anti-mask rhetoric, I also received a large number of angry messages accusing me of breaking the law, ignoring parental rights, of being brainwashed by “Big Science,” of being a communist, and worse. I assume several of my colleagues received similar messages. After the vote, I continued to receive angry emails and insults, but on the other hand, I have received messages from parents expressing thanks and gratitude for the steps we’ve taken to ensure the safety of children and their teachers.
Since school began for most Florida school districts this month, we have sadly seen a large number of Covid cases among students and teachers in those districts without mask requirements. In Hillsborough County alone, over 300 teachers tested positive and nearly 6,000 students went into quarantine within the first week of school. In response, several of those school districts, including Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Leon, have changed course and are now requiring masks (some with medical accommodations). I believe that as Covid-19 cases continue to increase in schools, we will see more and more school districts enact mask mandates and defy DeSantis’ administration.
Despite the enormous political pressure and threats from the governor, I proudly joined the majority of my colleagues and voted in favor of a mask mandate without an opt-out option, except when medically justified. I’m also proud of my colleagues, superintendents and others in school districts around the state who have voted to protect our students and stand up to DeSantis’ irresponsible and wrongful rhetoric.
As elected school board members, the health and safety of our students are our number one responsibility. Their health should never be turned into a political or partisan issue, and I hope that the governor changes course and starts to work with us to protect our students from this dangerous disease.