Task force recommends face masks for Miami-Dade students

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s largest school district will likely require students to wear face masks when classrooms open next week, following the recommendation of a task force of medical experts and defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attempt to block mandatory mask rules.

The Miami-Dade County School Board is expected to approve the measure Wednesday. “My mind is pretty made up on the way to move forward,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.

Students in neighboring Broward County will also be wearing masks when they return Wednesday, and people in both districts have been keeping an eye on the Tampa area, where classes started last week. The Hillsborough County School Board, which has not required masks in classrooms, scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday to discuss additional protections.

“We’re at that place. It’s unavoidable,” board chairperson Lynn Gray said Monday.

Hillsborough’s COVID-19 case count stood at 731 at midday Monday, nearly 20 times higher than it was after the first week of fall classes in 2020. On Monday, the district reported 5,599 students and 316 employees either in isolation, having tested positive for COVID-19, or in quarantine — which means they had close contact with a positive case.

Miami-Dade has the nation’s fourth-largest school district with 334,000 students, while Broward is the sixth-largest district with 261,000 students. Both counties were hotspots before, but now the delta variant has spread across so much of Florida that the entire state is considered high-risk. On Monday, about 15,600 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Florida, nearly eight times more than in June, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As more districts consider defying DeSantis, the Florida Board of Education is threatening two school districts that are ignoring bans on mask mandates. Members voted unanimously Tuesday for Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to enforce an executive order by DeSantis and a state rule by the Florida Department of Health that requires school districts to allow parents to opt out of mask mandates. Based on the motions, school districts in Alachua and Broward counties could face possible loss of funding, removal of local officials and further action from the state Legislature.

Superintendents from both counties said during the teleconference meeting that their districts were complying with state law and attempting to provide safe learning environments for students. In both districts, students can be exempted from wearing a mask with a doctor’s written recommendation. The state rules say students should be able to go maskless with the permission of a parent or legal guardian.

President Joe Biden called school district superintendents in Florida and Arizona last week to praise them for doing “the right thing” in defiance of executive orders from their governors. The Biden administration also promised federal money if DeSantis carries out a threat to withhold some state funds from districts imposing mask mandates.

Carvalho said he came to his conclusion despite criticism from some parents, noting that a 13-year-old student and four district employees have died of COVID-19 in recent weeks. Two teachers and an assistant teacher died from the virus last week in Broward County.

“I don’t know what the threshold of acceptable pain in this community is. I don’t know what the acceptable threshold or statistical probability of a single child dying is in this community,” he said. “Just like I don’t know what the threshold that anyone should accept as appropriate for teachers, custodial staff, police officers who may have underlying conditions ... who may be hospitalized, who may be intubated or who may perish.”

The Miami Herald reported that school board members met virtually Monday and appeared to agree with requiring masks.

“Our children will be fine,” said school board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall. “We’re going to see to that.”

In Palm Beach County on Tuesday the county commission declared a state of emergency as the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 continues to strain hospitals.

The unanimously approved order allows the county to obtain data from hospitals that includes the ICU capacity and number of beds available for COVID-19 patients.

The daily reports will be posted online, which will also help “the public understand the critical situation we are in right now,” Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the county’s state-run health department, told the commission.

Commissioner Melissa McKinlay proposed the emergency order after all 12 ICU beds at Lakeside Medical Center in Belle Glade quickly filled up last week. The hospital was forced to transfer emergency room patients to hospitals in Miami and Orlando.

Meanwhile, Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County announced Monday that it is offering $150 bonuses to employees who are fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, and that workers who don’t comply will be required to wear masks and won’t be allowed to eat in public spaces indoors, among other requirements. Memorial now has nearly 700 COVID-19 patients being treated in its six hospitals, a statement said.


Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.