The Florida Battle Over School Masks Reaches its Pinnacle Amid Data Kerfuffle

Joe Duncan

Schools, Masks, and Political Battles
Child wearing a surgical mask as the COVID-19 pandemic unfoldsIzzy Park

It's been a crazy week. Heck, it's been a crazy month, a crazy quarter, and a crazy year. In Florida, we've become a battleground for the rights of children and families, we've navigated this global pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that's rocked the world.

Now that back-to-school is in full swing, some Florida parents are upset about the fact that schools have tried to get their children to wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus. The vast majority of Floridians approve of school mask mandates to keep the kids, teachers, parents, and staff safe.

Earlier this year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis unilaterally issued a mask mandate ban that prevented any school in Florida from implementing mask decrees for the kids. Florida teachers and parents began to push back.

The move was insanely unpopular, with only 31.9% of Floridians supporting it.

That's when DeSantis threatened to withhold the pay from school districts that didn't comply.

And now, the State of Florida, with the Department of Education at the bit, is following through on that promise. As NBC News reported:

The Florida State Board of Education approved plans to deduct an amount equal to a month’s pay from school board members in eight counties, including in some of the state’s biggest cities. It will also reduce overall funding to the counties if they receive federal grants intended to blunt the state’s fines.

Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried is now pushing back against DeSantis amidst accusations that DeSantis is skewing the COVID-19 numbers to make the cases, deaths, and hospitalizations look better than they actually have been.

In recent months, Fried has been doing the Governor's job for him. She's been keeping skeptical Floridians updated about pertinent information as it regards to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As questions about the transparency of Florida COVID-19 reporting swirl around, and as rumors plague the embattled Florida Governor, his challenger and State Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried has taken to Twitter to provide Florida with the facts.

While her Democratic challenger Charlie Crist's Twitter account has been mostly tame, Fried has taken to Twitter to keep Floridians informed at a time when they're skeptical about their own Governor's performance.

She accused the DeSantis administration of covering up the truth about mask mandates in Florida schools, as she went on to say:

This new data provides that this punishment is purely political, intended to intimidate, designed to prop up Governor DeSantis’ future presidential campaign and in no way is based on science of the masks in the classroom.

The Governor fired back:

She does nothing. All she does is emote on social media, virtue signal to small dollar donors in California and New York... I've done more I think in my first week as governor

But as it turned out, the numbers Fried released pertaining to Florida schools and their mask and COVID data weren’t all that great.

In one sense, she's demonstrating to her supporters that she is willing to speak truth to power and fight for them. In another sense, she's got some glaring holes in her COVID data.

As Renzo Downey reported for Florida Politics:

The data, compiled by Fried’s office in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, does not account for county vaccination rates. The latest COVID-19 surge, driven by the rise of the delta variant this summer, disproportionately hit unvaccinated communities. School districts without mask mandates resided in counties that also had lower vaccination rates. The data also doesn’t account for community spread or prior infections. Fried’s calculations come from 33 of Florida’s 67 counties that publish weekly COVID-19 data for schools. Fried’s office merged it with student enrollment. Fewer children are in quarantine and fewer teachers and staff are sick because of masking requirements, Fried argued, referring to the data as “indisputable evidence.”

Politico reported that Fried's numbers contained errors as well that make Fried's numbers far less reliable.

It seems like the Governor's Race for 2022 has already started and is now heating up, with the school mask policy issue being toward the top of the list of talking points, front and center for each of the candidates.

And it's easy to see why. It's an issue that parents on both sides of the debate deeply care about the issue and their kids. The school-mask battle is at the pinnacle. Now, it's up address courts to figure out how we'll proceed and address this pandemic going forward, as it seems that COVID-19 isn't going away anytime soon.

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