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Four Florida's Five Largest School Districts Defy State's Ban On School Mask Mandates

MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — Three more of Florida's largest school districts have decided to defy the DeSantis administration's ban on school mask mandates.

School boards in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Hillsborough counties voted Wednesday to join Broward and Alachua in requiring students to wear facial coverings unless they get a doctor's note. With Orange County still allowing an easy parental opt-out, four of Florida's five largest districts are now defying a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that banned strict mask mandates.

Students began their school year in Palm Beach County on Aug. 10 with a parental opt-out policy that allowed more than 10,000 children to attend classes without masks. The board reversed course after seeing the numbers: After just one week, 734 students and 112 employees had confirmed infections, and more than 1,700 students had been sent home, Interim Superintendent Michael Burke said. Starting Monday, students, teachers, and staff will have to wear masks. The mandate will be reviewed in 90 days.

Hillsborough, which also began its school year last week, also changed its policy during an emergency meeting Wednesday after tallying 2,058 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and sending more than 10,000 students into isolation due to infection or quarantine due to exposure.

Children, particularly those too young to get vaccinated against COVID-19, are "really good" at transmitting the coronavirus, according to Dr. J. Stacey Klutts, a special assistant to the national director of pathology and lab medicine for the entire Veterans Affairs system.

Klutts said the highly contagious delta variant makes it absolutely necessary to wear masks indoors and avoid large group gatherings, so if unprotected students sit for hours in classrooms every day, it could rapidly spread infection in the community at large.

"It's terrifying. I'm afraid that we're going to have a lot of really sick kids in addition to the spread which is going to be a lot of sick adults," Klutts said.

DeSantis, a Republican, also is in an escalating power struggle with the Democratic White House. After President Joe Biden ordered possible legal action Wednesday, the U.S. Education Department raised the possibility of using its civil rights arm against Florida and other Republican-led states that have blocked public health measures meant to protect students.

"Some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning," Biden's executive order said.

Issuing his own executive order last month, DeSantis said Florida must "protect parents' right to make decisions regarding masking of their children," and he tasked the state education commissioner with finding ways to make districts comply, including withholding state funds.

"The forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents' rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children," the governor's spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, said Wednesday. Politicians, including those on school boards, are not above the law, she added.

"I am not on the board for political partisanship," said Nadia Combs, who sponsored the mask policy in Hillsborough County. "We have to keep our schools open. That is my goal."

(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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