Local school leaders work to protect students from COVID despite Governor’s order blocking mandates

ORLANDO, Fla. — Within the next two weeks, hundreds of thousands of Central Florida students will head back to a traditional classroom, where there are no mask requirements for students.

Only one district, so far, will temporarily require masks for all employees. Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order, in July, preventing districts from mandating masks for students, saying he wouldn’t allow schools to “muzzle” children or restrict their breathing.

READ: OCPS to require employees, visitors to wear face masks while indoors

The executive order claims that given the historical data on COVID-19 and the ongoing debate over whether masks are more harmful than beneficial to children and to school environments in general, DeSantis believes the state should protect what he calls the freedoms and statutory rights of students and parents by resting with the parents the decision whether their children should wear a mask.

“I think the governor definitely has a different viewpoint than a lot of the school boards and superintendents, and you know his viewpoint is he wants to make sure things are returning back to normalcy, and our caution, being on the frontline, is to make sure we’re doing it safely,” Volusia County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ronald “Scott” Fritz told Investigative Reporter Daralene Jones. Fritz voluntarily told Jones that he’s vaccinated and has encouraged his staff to do the same.

Jones spent time with Dr. Fritz and Osceola County Schools Superintendent, Dr. Debra Pace to find out what they’re doing to try to keep students safe, given their restrictions. Both told her they would not send their children to school without a mask, given the current surge in cases.

“Certainly, there’s a heightened sense of anxiety among our parents among our community members and staff and even for me at night when I see the rising cases of COVID-19 here in our community,” Dr. Pace said. “But at the same time, we know there are ill effects for kids, significant ones when they aren’t in school. And we also know that school has proven to be a place we can keep them safe by following some important safety protocols that we’ve come up with our partners at Nemours Children’s hospital.”

READ: What is RSV and why are doctors seeing a spike in cases in children?

Osceola is among a handful of districts that have worked with Nemours to develop their own protocols because districts have been given no guidance from the state on what should happen if there’s a case of COVID or even an outbreak or how or if contact tracing should be conducted.

“We’ve invested in a product we can spray that is resistant to bacterial and viral spread so that’s one of the things we do every 90 days, in our classrooms on our buses, even on our playgrounds,” Dr. Pace explained.

In a hypothetical scenario both school leaders provided a similar response when asked what happens when “little Johnny” tests positive for COVID-19.

“Let’s look at your seating chart and find out who was sitting next to Johnny for more than 15 minutes at a time during the day and had that close contact. Was Johnny wearing his facial covering, have you as a staff member been vaccinated? So that’s how we make determinations about contact tracing and what the quarantine protocols would need to be following that situation,” Dr. Pace explained.

Most districts told Jones they plan to use assigned seating, in all classes and even the lunchroom to make contact tracing easier.

READ: FDA aims to give final OK to Pfizer vaccine by next month, report says

The Governor’s executive order not only prevents districts from implementing mask mandates for students but allows the Commissioner of Education to take away funding from districts that don’t comply. And the Governor promised to make good on that when the Broward County school board voted unanimously to require masks for all students, teachers, staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, based on the surge in Florida cases and updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Broward school board will discuss its next steps at a regularly scheduled meeting in mid-August. Jones asked why Central Florida districts aren’t pushing back.

“I wouldn’t say we’re being quiet,” Dr. Fritz said. “We’re sharing our concerns. I think we’re doing it in the right way, sharing it with our legislators. We’re making sure our boards are working together with the superintendents.”

9-Investigates has been tracking the cases for children under 12 who can’t get vaccinated and make up a large chunk of the public-school populations. In late May, there were just about a thousand cases, with a positivity rate of 3.6 percent. The latest weekly numbers released by the Florida Department of Health show that the weekly case count has jumped to more than 10,000 with a positivity rate of 18.2 percent.

While districts can’t require students to wear masks, the Orange County Superintendent told parents through a video message this month, effective August 6 and for 30 days, all employees and school visitors will be required to wear a face mask in all facilities and on school buses.

“This extra layer of mitigation will provide some protection to employees and students as we continue to monitor community trends in consultation with medical experts,” Dr. Barbara Jenkins said. “A determination to end or extend the requirement will be made prior to the end of the 30-day period.”

READ: Central Florida hospitals adjust for influx of COVID-19 patients

Dr. Jenkins said in the video posted to YouTube that she believes she has the the right to implement the policy under the delegated authority granted to her in the School Board Disease Prevention – Face Coverings memo issued by the state in April.

Osceola, Seminole, Brevard, Volusia, and Lake counties told us via email that, as of right now, they have no plans to change their voluntary mask policies for staff and school visitors.

READ: Starbucks, McDonald’s, Home Depot to require workers wear masks inside all locations

There are no districts requiring vaccinations for employees, but Orange County is offering a $200 incentive for those who show proof of vaccination and Osceola county employees are eligible for COVID-19 sick leave (up to 10 days), effective August 4th, when they are fully vaccinated and have contracted the virus due to exposure in the workplace.

Employees who are fully vaccinated and contract COVID-19 must provide a copy of their positive test results and a copy of their vaccination card to the Risk and Benefits Department in order to be eligible for the COVID leave.