How many FL students will opt-out of mask requirements under new law? About 20,000 - or 6 percent - so far in Dade

Following months of debate, legal challenges, and a special legislative session on the matter, it seems the drawn-out discussion about who decides whether students wear masks in schools during the COVID pandemic has reached a conclusion.

The result: Florida school districts are forbidden from requiring masks in classrooms unless parents can opt their students out. It’s now law. And districts are complying.

But some districts have stopped keeping track, and some never did

Officials haven’t closely and persistently tracked the number of students who opted out of mask requirements on a statewide basis. Inconsistencies in mask policies throughout the state complicate the issue further.

It’s going to be difficult to know just how many students are wearing masks compared to how many are not, now that the question is truly up to the parents.

Andrea Messina, executive director for the Florida School Boards Association, said that local school boards do not have to report data regarding masks to her organization, so she doesn’t know how many students opted out, either.

She speculates that more details could be available soon, as school board members gather for a conference next week and will discuss COVID policies.

“We’ll have a much better feel for things, because the board members will tell us the status in their districts,” Messina told the Phoenix.

Jared Ochs, communication staffer for the Florida Department of Education, told the Phoenix that the state agency wasn’t tracking how many students were wearing masks. He noted that the variation in mask policies would have made the data difficult to track.

“Some districts had different policies. Some districts had no policies,” Ochs said. “There’s a lot of nuanced variables.”

The agency was more concerned about whether school boards were “following the law,” and not necessarily with how many parents wanted their kids exempt from mask mandates.

The issue involves the concept of “parental rights” — meaning parents’ ability to make decisions for their children.

“What we were mostly concerned about is that they [school boards] were just giving the option [of parental opt-outs],” Ochs told the Phoenix.

Some districts have changed their mask policies to allow students to opt out of mask mandates with parents’ permission.

In fact, the last school district to loosen its mask mandate was in Broward County, which as of Nov. 19 allows parental opt-outs — that was the last school day before students there started Thanksgiving break. It’s not yet clear how many students will take advantage of new mask policy until they go back to school on Monday.

The opt-out forms that certain districts required parents to fill out offer some insight, however.

For example, the Miami-Dade school district was among those sanctioned by the state for its strict mask mandate. Not long after, the district loosened the policy, allowing parents to opt their student out of the mask requirement.

Elmo Lugo, a communications staffer with the South Florida district, said in an email to the Phoenix that, as of Nov. 17, administrators had received about 20,000 forms out of 333,000 students, the number enrolled as of spring 2021 according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

That means about 6 percent of students opted out of masks as of mid-November.

But the data will be harder to track now, as the district does not require forms to opt out anymore. “We no longer have a mechanism to tally the masks opt outs,” Lugo said in an email to the Phoenix.

Portions of this report first appeared on the website of the Florida Phoenix, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to coverage of state government and politics from Tallahassee.

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