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Florida school mask controversy continues as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge in Florida, a debate is raging over requiring masks in schools.

An emergency rule in Florida will allow parents to use vouchers to transfer children out of public schools that require masks, but not everyone agrees with the move. Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is threatening to withhold funding from districts that require masks.

"The decision to try to withdraw funds or withhold funds from school districts who are trying to make decisions in the best interest of public safety is really disturbing to me," said Sarah Leonardi, a school board member in Broward County, where opponents of masks have been vocal.

"I don't disagree that it should be a parent's choice, but no one's choice for a sense of personal liberty, not based in science, in fact, should not impede on a right of a student or employee to stay healthy and alive," Leonardi added.

COVID-19 cases in children are rising nationwide, with more than 71,000 reported last week, an 86% jump from the week before. Eight states have measures banning districts from requiring masks in schools, but in Arkansas, a judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the ban.

"If you have a lot of disease in the community you'll get it in the school, the whole point is to prevent that," said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

And it's not just school-aged children. In Houston, an 11-month-old girl had to be airlifted to a hospital 150 miles away because the pediatric hospitals in the area could not take her.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease specialist, said this is a "very serious situation" for children. "It's pretty clear that we were really good about protecting our children last year and last year's virus was not as dangerous as this year's Delta variant," she said. "We need to add as many layers of protection as we can."

For some of the first vaccinated — including seniors, people in long-term care facilities and healthcare workers — the CDC says a plan for providing COVID vaccine booster shots could be announced next month.

President Biden called out hot-spot governors his week, including DeSantis, for failing to implement restrictions, including mask mandates in schools

"He thinks that should be a decision for the government, well I can tell ya in Florida, the parents are gonna be the ones in charge of that decision," DeSantis said of the president.

The governor has also said that his state won't shut down again despite the influx of cases and hospitalizations.

"We're not shutting down," DeSantis said Tuesday at a press conference. "These interventions have failed time and time again throughout this pandemic, not just in the United States but abroad. They have not stopped the spread."

Florida had more than 12,000 hospital patients with the coronavirus as of Thursday. In the last week, the state has also reported more pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations than any other state, at around 13,400.

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