TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Florida Department of Education wants school districts to revise mask-wearing policies from mandatory to voluntary for the start of the 2021-2022 school year, even though a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report recommends that mask-wearing is an important virus mitigation measure in schools.
In a letter sent this week to the state’s 67 superintendents, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran wrote that “the data shows us that the districts’ face-covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus.”
The CDC’s March 2021 report on reopening schools in Florida contradicts the commissioner’s claim by saying school districts without mask requirements had higher occurrences of COVID-19 cases.
Tampa Bay attorney Charles Gallagher shared with 8 On Your Side the Department of Education’s response to his public information request about mask-wearing in schools.
“The CDC’s March 2021 Florida report also validated the conclusion the commissioner articulated in his letter by highlighting that Florida schools got it right – they were learning and implementing best practices quickly and our schools were leading the way,” Department of Education Deputy Director of Communications Cheryl Etters said.
She added that “clearly other factors – NOT face-covering policies – are driving healthy results for Florida’s schools.”
Etters provided this graphic from the CDC report which does show more children ages 5 to 17 become infected outside of the classroom.
“The data also supports the CDC’s finding that incidents at schools reflect what students and adults bring to campuses, and are NOT driven by what happens in school,” Etters said.
The CDC report found fewer than 1 percent of registered students had “school-related COVID-19.”
USF Professor of Epidemiology Jason Salemi explained that although 27 of the state’s 67 school districts did not mandate masks, about 93 percent of the state’s student population was required to wear them upon returning to the classroom.
The CDC report concluded that “school reopening can likely be achieved without widespread student illness in K-12 settings.” It states that stopping the introduction of COVID-19 in schools depends on controlling community spread and “mitigation measures in schools, particularly masking, physical distancing, testing and increasing room air ventilation.”
“COVID-19 school-related disease incidence among Florida students was correlated with community incidence in the counties observed and was highest in smaller counties, districts without mask requirements, and those that reopened earliest after closure in March 2020,” the CDC report said in its summary.
According to the CDC report, “a large proportion of school-related outbreaks was observed among social gatherings and extracurricular sporting activities.”
“When you compare counties that are less likely to implement masks you find a higher student incidence rate of getting the virus and then you couple that with their final recommendation that masking be a large part of the mitigation strategy for schools that suggests that masks are at least somewhat important for preventing spread in schools,” Salemi told 8 On Your Side.
In a statement, a Hillsborough County Public Schools spokesperson thanked students for being vigilant this year in following health and safety protocols on school campuses.
“Our district will continue to work closely with public health experts and local government entities to reevaluate mask guidelines as we move toward next school year,” the HCPS statement said. “Hillsborough County Public Schools has successfully implemented proper health protocols since the pandemic began with the help of TGH and USF Health, and we will continue to do so moving through the summer months.”
Director of the USF Health Division of Infectious Diseases Dr. Kami Kim said the spread of the more transmissible UK variant is a reason school districts should keep mask requirements in place.
“I think there is ample reason to try to be as safe as possible at this point,” Dr. Kim said. “I think it would be tough to keep kids out of school but I don’t see why you couldn’t wear masks and things like that because yes, kids don’t want to do it but every little bit helps. This has been a raging ongoing argument and honestly, to me, I really don’t understand. If a mask could help why wouldn’t you do it? It’s the part I don’t really understand, especially if it protects somebody in your community.”