What will classrooms look like this year?
On Monday Miami-Dade County School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and a task force of medical and health experts reached a unanimous decision that masks must be worn by everyone in the building: students, teachers, staff, visitors and volunteers.
“My mind is made up. I am in full agreement with the recommendations made by (the district’s) Medical Task Force,” Carvalho said earlier this week after the task force’s meeting ended.
“I think the best prevention, short of vaccination, is the wearing of masks.”
The panel’s recommendation now goes before the school board on Wednesday. After a final decision is reached, policy will be set, and the Medical Task Force will meet weekly to assess local COVID infection statistic, making recommendations if needed.
If the school district moves ahead with mandatory masks, it will be in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order that no state school district impose mask mandates.
In the past, Carvalho has made it very clear that he will make these decisions guided by this group of experts and the science and not by political pressure.
DeSantis asserts that the Centers for Disease Control’s mask guidelines lack scientific justification. Parents, he said, should decide if their children wear masks. And DeSantis has threatened to withhold state funding from school systems that do not follow his order.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools has already announced the district will require K-12 students to wear masks in school buses. And Carvalho is pushing for more. “We are sadly leading the country in terms of COVID infections, mainly driven by the Delta variant, which is more resilient, more transmissible, and more infectious than other variants,” he said.
Michelle Coto, principal at Key Biscayne K8 Center, said they “will follow whatever policies, guidelines and procedures Miami-Dade County Public Schools decides.”
Coto noted that virtual school will be offered by the county via Miami-Dade On-Line Academy for those parents who wish to keep their children out of schools.
Jonathan Mendez, a rising senior at MAST Academy, believes masks should not be mandatory, but all eligible students should be vaccinated.
“Masks at school,” he said, “will not allow for the students to have events. This lack of engagement and enjoyment has taken a toll on students’ mental and emotional health. It felt as though we were disconnected from the school, even though we were there physically.”
One parent of a student on Key Biscayne shared a view akin to what DeSantis has said: “I believe we as parents should be able to choose whether our children wear masks at school, because my child is fully vaccinated and is very safe without one. Those who want to wear a mask should be able to, and those who don’t shouldn’t have to.”
Some of Florida’s largest school districts have pushed back on DeSantis and decided to keep mask mandates for their students, teachers and school employees.
Broward County, with Florida’s second-largest school district, announced last week that face coverings would be mandatory for everyone, regardless of vaccination status.
Rocky Hanna, superintendent of Leon County Schools, urged DeSantis to allow the district “the autonomy to make the decision for our schools that best fit our local data and information.”
Hanna said the high transmissibility of the Delta variant is the critical difference now. In the past 10 days, he said, four school-aged children in the county were admitted to local hospitals, and two pre-kindergarten teachers were in intensive care.
Florida reported 151,764 new COVID cases last week and 21,669 on Tuesday, Aug 17 alone. As of Tuesday, the State’s 7-day average was 21,789 cases per day. And, with 15,840 people hospitalized for the virus as of Aug. 13, Florida now accounts for 1 out of every 5 COVID hospitalizations in the nation.
Miami Dade County has, since the inception of COVID, seen 584,000 cases reported and 6,472 deaths. In the past seven days, there have been 21,655 new cases, a 9.7% week over week increase.
And the victims are getting younger.
An average of 192 children with COVID (under age 17) were admitted to US hospitals every day during the last week of July -- a 45.7% week-over-week increase in daily hospitalizations, according to the CDC.
In Florida, the CDC reported that 55 children (under age 17) were admitted every day to Florida hospitals between August 7 and August 13. The concern is that number will increase after school fully kicks in state-wide.
Health experts’ recommendation
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that face masks be worn by all students regardless of age or vaccination status.
The CDC recommends everyone 12 and older get a COVID vaccination, which it considers the best way to help stop the pandemic. To find a local vaccine outlet, click here or text your ZIP code to 438829. You can also call 1-800-232-0233.
Based on those recommendations, and local statistics, Carvalho is adamant about what the district needs to do.
“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck,” he said, adding that it would be a “small price to pay considering the gravity of the issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees.”
DeSantis had originally threatened to withhold salaries of superintendents if they disobeyed his no-mask mandate order. When he learned the state doesn’t pay those salaries, he changed his threat to say the state would use “targeted” withholdings to school systems.
Meanwhile, as the threats, postulations and pronouncements continue -- and the statistics illustrate the impact of the Delta variant on the population -- students, parents and school employees will return next week to schools, back to the business of education.