Will face masks be mandatory next school year?

Students wearing masks in classroom
Students wearing masks in classroom

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to school district superintendents on Wednesday asking that school districts make face masks optional for the 2021-22 school year.

“Throughout the successful reopening of our school for in-person instruction, we have consistently provided families with the ability to make educational decisions that are in the best interest of their children,” the letter states. “Therefore, we should continue to make surgical—not sweeping—decisions to mitigate large-scale educational disruption.”

Corcoran called the use of face coverings a personal decision.

“Broad sweeping mandatory face covering policies serve no remaining good at this point,” he wrote. 

He added that mandatory face coverings policies “inhibit peer-to-peer learning in our classrooms, and they may also unintentionally create a barrier for students and families who would choose in-person instruction if such a policy were not in place.”

Corcoran gave kudos to Florida school districts for implementing, learning and improving upon mitigations and protections for students, educators and school leaders.

“Our teachers and school leaders are heroes and they have led the nation in reopening Florida’s schools,” he wrote.

According to the Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) COVID-19 response dashboard, as of April 16, there have been 678 cases of COVID-19 reported for students and 307 for staff so far during the 2020-2021 school year.

Currently, 73 percent of the student population is attending in-person classes, and the level rating of COVID-19 transmission for Alachua County is high, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 integrate county view of cases.

ACPS currently has a face mask mandate in place requiring all students and staff to comply. According to Prescott Cowles, a member of the district’s COVID-19 response team, the decision about face mask wearing in the next school year will depend on the advice of medical experts.

“The ultimate authority is the health department,” Cowles said. “The CDC guidance continues to be the continued use of masks in schools for this year, and we hope that we’re in a place where we’re safe enough in the fall where we can evaluate that. But that evaluation is not going to happen until we get a little closer.”

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