NEWS ANALYSIS: PBC school district imposes mandatory mask mandate defying Gov. DeSantis order


photo by Eva Woods, staff writer

Olympic Heights students, such as those in Mr. Michael Taylor’s fourth period AICE Global Perspectives class, have been adhering to the school district’s mandatory mask mandate.

Following the lead of other Florida school districts, the School District of Palm Beach County recently enacted a mandatory mask mandate on all campuses that went into effect on Aug. 20. The mandate defies Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates, which gives parents the choice of whether or not their kids will wear masks to school. 

The Republican governor has been unmoving in his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions and the wearing of face coverings since the beginning of the pandemic. In September of 2020, DeSantis allowed the reopening of bars, restaurants, and other businesses to full capacity in the final phase of his reopening plan. But while maskless Floridians were grateful to have their precious beer and football again, thousands more were contracting and dying of COVID-19.

DeSantis’s hasty “return to normalcy” following the 2020 quarantine very likely correlates to the rough condition that Florida is in compared to other states that are battling the COVID-19 Delta variant. As of Wednesday, Sept. 1, Florida had 3.27 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 198,000 of them located in Palm Beach County. Additionally, Florida led the nation in COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita for the month of August.

Prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year, DeSantis signed an order banning schools from making protective face coverings mandatory. This came after the Broward County school board voted to require that students wear masks. According to the New York Times, DeSantis said that “the decision [whether to wear a mask] should be in the hands of parents, not school or health officials.”

On Aug. 27, a Florida judge ruled in a case brought against the state by parents claiming that DeSantis had overstepped his authority by banning mask mandates that DeSantis had done just that, essentially throwing out the DeSantis edict. Nevertheless, the Florida Dept. of Education is proceeding with steps to financially punish those school districts who have adopted mandatory mask mandates.

To start the 2021-22 school year, Palm Beach County parents could opt their children out of having to wear a mask by simply submitting a signed note indicating that desire. This was available for anyone who did not want to wear a mask; it wasn’t exclusively for medical exemptions. 

Many Olympic Heights students who preferred not to wear a mask took advantage of the opt-out policy. The Palm Beach Post reported that “1 in 25 [Palm Beach County] students have opted out of wearing masks.” However, the lack of social distancing in classrooms meant that those maskless students could more easily unknowingly spread the coronavirus to their classmates.

Parents against the opt-out policy pushed back, demanding that the Palm Beach County school board makes masks mandatory. Just two weeks into the school year, with numerous reported cases of COVID-19 on school campuses, the school board amended the mask mandate, making it mandatory by a 6-1 vote with no opt out available, much to DeSantis’s dismay.

The Palm Beach County schools’ mask mandate is the strictest one yet among the school districts that defied DeSantis’ order. Unlike Broward and Miami-Dade, Palm Beach County’s mandate does not allow for any medical exemptions. Parents can only exempt their child from wearing a mask if they secure exemptions under federal disability laws, so the majority of students will have to wear a mask whether they like it or not.

The Palm Beach Post reported that a DeSantis spokesperson reacted to the amended mandate on the governor’s behalf by saying that it “‘infringes upon parents’ rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children.’”

Since the beginning of the school year students and parents have been bombarded with daily COVID-19 notifications from OH principal Ms. Kelly Burke, reporting new COVID-19 cases at school. According to the school district’s COVID-19 Dashboard, 48 students and three OH staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sept. 1.

The school has made efforts at contact tracing in hopes of limiting the spread of the virus. Teachers record a seating chart to ensure that administrators can access know which students sat near another student who tests positive so that all nearby students are ordered to quarantine before potentially spreading the virus. However, many students and teachers at OH see flaws in this method of contact tracing.

“At lunch, students have to take off their masks in order to eat, but the school cannot trace how everyone sits and who they sit with at lunch,” explained OH junior Emily Arjoon. Contact tracing methods are limited to in-classroom interactions, but even in-class seating charts do not fully account for any time a student gets up to use the bathroom or visit another classmate’s desk.

It is unclear what the future of the 2021-2022 school year will look like, whether students will continue to attend class in-person, via Google Meet, or if the district will reintroduces the “blended model” used last school year. The highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 has induced fear in parents about the safety of their children at school, but they are likely a bit more at ease as a result of the district’s mask mandate.