Maea Lenei Buhre
Maea Lenei Buhre
Students returned to school in a number of states this week amid a new surge of COVID cases and a fierce battle over mask mandates. Republican governors in states like Arizona and Texas have tried to stop school districts from mandating face masks, drawing sharp criticism from some parents and educators, and action from the white house. John Yang reports from Florida, the epicenter of this debate.
Students returned to school in a number of states this week amid a new surge of COVID cases and a fierce battle over face masks in the classroom.
Republican governors in states like Arizona and Texas have tried to stop school districts from mandating masks. That has drawn sharp criticism from some parents and educators and even action from the White House.
John Yang reports from Florida, the epicenter of this debate.
It's the first week of school for Luca Moreno-Ramos, a first grader in Broward County, Florida.
After the better part of a year spent learning virtually, away from friends and teachers, he's eager to get back in the classroom. Luca's dad, John, makes sure he has a new back-to-school necessity, a face mask.
The Broward County School District, with more than 260,000 students, the nation's sixth largest, began the school year with a requirement that all students and teachers wear a mask indoors, unless they have a doctor's note.
I think that little kids that have been really exposed to what is happening, and the parents talk to them about what is going on, they don't have any issues. Luca has never told me, like, I don't want to have this on.
Across town, Kelly Doyle's 14-year-old son, Ben, was nervous the morning of his first day of high school. And he said wearing a mask didn't help.
I think it's just annoying, honestly. Like, it just gets in the way. It's harder to breathe. It gets warm.
It really isn't doing anything. And it's more of a detriment to the kids, because it's not a healthy thing to have a mask on all day. You know, at what point do people need to stop being responsible for someone else's health and they need to start being responsible for their own health?
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that all those in schools wear a mask.
How important is masking?
Dr. Lisa Gwynn:
Masking is critical.
Dr. Lisa Gwynn is a University of Miami pediatrician and president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
She says there's no evidence that masks are harmful to children.
The sources of the CDC and all of the science-based professional organizations in medicine all agree. And so that's all I can say about that.
In Florida, the disagreement among parents over masking in schools has become a political fight.
Days after the Broward County school board imposed the mask mandate last month, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order effectively banning local school districts from requiring masks. He said it was a matter of parental freedom of choice.
What right do you have to deny my child an education because of a mask?
My daughter's life depends on each and every one of you.
But, last week, after hours of impassioned testimony from both sides, the board voted to keep the mandate.
Board Chair Rosalind Osgood:
Dr. Rosalind Osgood:
We believe strongly that it's not about defying the governor. It's a moral decision that says we value the life of people, no matter what. We do whatever it is we need to do to protect them.
Now the Broward County School District is being threatened with penalties for its mask mandate.
The state board of education may withhold the money the district would spend the salaries of the superintendent and members of the school board.
I'm willing personally to give up my salary for that year, because I will be able to sleep at night knowing that I did everything I could to protect a child or staff person in the school.
This week, Florida's largest district, Miami-Dade, said it too would require all students and teachers to be masked when classes start on Monday.
If it saves just one life, 10 hospitalizations, isn't that the least we could do?
And in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, officials imposed a 30-day mask mandate after more than 1,000 students tested positive for COVID in the first week of school.
Since the start of July, COVID-19 cases have been surging across Florida, including, notably, among children.
For parents like Jenna Hague, a school mask mandate isn't the answer. The day before classes began, Hague took her 10-year-old daughter, Addison, to a meet-the-teacher open house.
She is not wearing a mask.
Well, then she's not going to come to school.
They were turned away after refusing to put on masks.
In my eyes, for me, it's not time for my child to wear one for eight hours a day. It's just too long.
Addison said wearing a mask in classes last school year gave her headaches.
I hated it. It always, like — it made me sweaty, because it wasn't — it was on my face all day, and you couldn't take it off.
So, Addison wasn't in school when classes began.
Now Hague, who is running for the Florida legislature, has applied for a state school voucher program Governor DeSantis is using for students who don't want to comply with any local district's mask mandate.
I'm not saying if somebody else chooses to send their child with a mask, that that shouldn't be allowed. It should. That's their choice. That's their prerogative, as it is mine to make that decision for my child. And it's not the school board that gets to make that decision.
On the first day of school, Broward officials reported near universal compliance with the mask mandate. For longtime high school teacher Katrina Whittaker, it was a relief.
I wanted to do a cartwheel. I wanted to do a flip. I wanted to do a split. I was happy, and I was happy that I didn't have to say to the kids, put on your mask. They were walking around with their mask on. It is just great to know that they care enough to put on their masks.
And this is Janice (ph).
Whittaker, who lost a close colleague to COVID last week, said teachers have been forgotten in this debate.
I don't think that they value what the teachers want. You know, I don't — we have not been asked what we want, how we feel about it.
For now, John Moreno-Escobar is sending his son Luca to school with a sense of relief.
They made a decision to protect our kids, to protect our teachers, to protect our community as a whole. And it's something really simple. You know, just wear your mask, make sure that your kid's wearing your mask when they go to school, and that's it.
Across town, Kelly Doyle finds herself in a game of wait and see.
If this goes on for a month, I will have to see how I feel again. I don't want to pull them out of school. You know, it's just — it's a tough call.
As families, school administrators, and public health officials clash over the best way for schools to reopen safely.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Broward County, Florida.
Watch the Full Episode
John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
Maea Lenei Buhre is a general assignment producer for the PBS NewsHour.
Support Provided By:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Additional Support Provided By: