After hearing from medical advisors, Miami-Dade Schools’ decision on masks is a no-brainer | Editorial

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, with iPrep Academy pre-K students in June, says he plans to follow science and medical experts’ guidance when it comes to wearing masks in schools.
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Miami-Dade County Public Schools leaders will need to do a lot of mental and political gymnastics to justify anything other than a mask mandate after spending almost two and a half hours listening to medical advice Monday.

There was no room for interpretation: Masks should be required in the 2021-22 school year, according to the district’s Ad Hoc Medical and Public Health Experts Task Force. Agreeing with them are the American Academy of Pediatrics, the organization’s Florida Chapter and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — all of which recommend universal masking at schools because of the highly transmissible delta variant and the fact children under age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines.

“It would be a travesty — a travesty — not to require masking in schools,” said Dr. Aileen Marty, an expert in infectious disease and disaster medicine at Florida International University.

“There is no indication that children should not be wearing masks. They are not harmful in any way,” added Dr. Lisa Gwynn, vice president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is on board. He wants an indoor mask mandate with an opt-out for students whose medical condition prevents them from wearing one — similar to the district’s policy during the 2020-21 school year, he told the Miami Herald Editorial Board.

“I am accepting without reservation all the agreements and suggestions by the medical task force,” Carvalho said.

That’s wise given the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Miami-Dade has increased 868% since the end of the last school year, according to the district.

To mask or not to mask: We spoke to experts on how to keep kids COVID-free at school | Editorial

Political courage

Now it’s up to the School Board, which meets on Wednesday, to do the same. They must have the political courage to defy an executive order from Gov. DeSantis and an emergency order from the Florida Department of Health that districts must allow parents to opt out of mandates for any reason or risk financial penalties.

It’s not every day that this Editorial Board recommends school districts defy an executive orders. But when the health and safety of children, teachers and staff are at stake, we have no choice. The public-health benefits of requiring masks to prevent COVID’s spread in schools far outweigh the potential consequences of standing up to a bullying governor.

We’d rather see Carvalho and the School Board risk their own salaries — a penalty Florida’s petulant governor said they might face — than allow children to turn up at school unmasked, possibly endangering the health of other students, faculty and staff that come in contact with that child. Schools have the backing of the Biden administration, which has said districts can use federal relief dollars to offset those financial losses.

It does appear that some School Board members are siding with the governor. An item on Wednesday’s School Board agenda, and co-sponsored by six members, updates Board policies to allow the superintendent to “explore” requiring facial coverings, “except for students whose parents exercise their right to affirmatively elect not to have their child wear facial coverings in school.”

This goes directly against the guidance of the medical task force, which said, categorically, that there are no reasons for opting out. One advisor, pediatrician Dr. Benny Rub, suggested some students whose disability prevent them from wearing masks might be given leniency, but that’s it. Although some task force members disagreed and said even then there shouldn’t be an exception, that’s fair.

Given that several School Board members attended the task force meeting, we hope they align with the opinion of their own advisors.

Other school districts already have illustrated the havoc the pandemic has wreaked in the short time schools have been open this year. In Hillsborough County, nearly 5,600 students have had to isolate or quarantine. That number includes students who tested positive or were exposed to a positive case. Now the county’s school board is having an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss, among other things, mandatory masking without an opt-out option.

Is this the position Miami-Dade wants to find itself in days after school begins Aug. 23?

Vengeful governor

DeSantis’ excuse of defending parents’ freedom is wearing thin. It’s akin to saying people are free to drink and drive because it’s their personal choice. Just like driving under the influence potentially harms — or kills — other drivers, passengers and pedestrians, so does not wearing a mask in terms of spreading the virus. School boards should not be at the mercy of the stroke of a pen by a vengeful governor when Florida has hit numbers of new cases and hospitalizations not seen since the beginning of the pandemic last year.

“There’s no question it’s the worst Miami-Dade has ever had throughout this pandemic,” Marty said.

People can still catch COVID wearing a mask; that also depends on the kind of mask and how well it fits and, as DeSantis has rightly said many times, vaccines are the best tool in fighting the pandemic. However, “Compelling data now demonstrate that community mask wearing is an effective non-pharmacologic intervention to reduce the spread” of COVID, according to a review of several mask studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Masks not only protect the wearer but those around them from breathing in particles.

Though imperfect, masks are one of the most effective tools that schools have to protect children who cannot yet get vaccinated and older children whose vaccination rates hover around 63% in Miami-Dade.

Of course, DeSantis refuses to believe that. He has convened his own group of medical advisors — call it an echo chamber — for COVID roundtables. One of the people who has his ear: California psychiatrist Mark McDonald, who equated masking children with “child abuse” and tweeted a meme in February that equated wearing masks with being a “retard.” Someone comfortable uttering such an offensive term should not be helping make public-health decisions for the nation’s third-largest state.

This is an easy choice for Miami-Dade’s School Board: Listen to your own experts.