Florida's education commissioner wants the state's public schools to eliminate mask mandates and instead make face coverings voluntary for the next school year.
Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter Wednesday to Florida's school superintendents asking them to revise their mask policies for the 2021-2022 year, saying they don't impact the spread of COVID-19.
"Face coverings are a personal decision and certainly families and individuals should maintain their ability to make a decision that is unique to their circumstances," Corcoran wrote in the letter. "Broad sweeping mandatory face covering policies serve no remaining good at this point in our schools."
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Corcoran argued that mandatory face covering policies "inhibit peer-to-peer learning in our classrooms and they may also unintentionally create a barrier for students and families who would otherwise choose in-person instruction if such a policy were not in place."
He added that the policies could also be especially detrimental to students with disabilities and students still learning English who would benefit from seeing a teacher's face and mouth.
Superintendents in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach have announced that students will be expected to return to classrooms in the fall, as online classes will be ending.
Schools shut down in March 2020 because of coronavirus and reopened in October for face-to-face learning, with some students or families choosing to remain in remote learning.
Other Florida school districts have also announced that they will be ending remote learning in the next school year.
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said he considered three factors in making the decision for Broward County schools — teachers can easily get the COVID-19 vaccine, an effort to make vaccinations to children 12 and older and poor academic results over the past year.
“Remote learning has had some negative impacts on students,” Runcie said. “They’ve struggled academically as well as socially and emotionally, and they need to be back in school.”
Runcie, who has said in the past that masks and social distancing have been effective in keeping kids healthy at school, reacted to Corcoran's letter on Thursday.
"We’ll have to monitor that to determine what protocols will be in place in the fall when we open. We’re gonna continue doing what we’ve always done and rely on the guidance we’re getting from the CDC and making sure that what we’re doing is aligned with Broward County and the benchmarks and measures that they’re taking," Runcie said.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said while the goal is to welcome back 100% of students in the fall, families will still be able to use the Miami-Dade Online Academy, a virtual learning school option that pre-dates the pandemic.
Carvalho also commented Thursday on Corcoran's mask memo.
“This is a request from the commissioner of education that would not take effect until August. The 21-22 school year. So we have time to do a number of things. Number one, continue to monitor the local health conditions. Continue to monitor the positivity rates. Continue to monitor the expanded evolution of the availability of vaccines and then rely on the advice of our medical and public health experts," Carvalho said.
In a statement Wednesday, United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats said they look forward to welcoming students back in the fall, but pushed back against eliminating the mask mandate.
"Even with an increasing number of people getting vaccinated, safety measures must continue to be implemented. The only way to safely and successfully reopen our schools is by following CDC guidelines, including the use of masks, handwashing, and socially distancing," Hernandez-Mats said.