Like other Alberta school districts, Clearview Public Schools asks for masks to be worn in required areas, including in common areas and hallways, and for students in Grade 4 to 12.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Big Florida school districts defy governor over mask mandate

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Students in Florida’s Broward County went back to school under a mask mandate Wednesday, even as their school board faced threats of severe penalties for defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.

And school officials in Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties planned to address the public health measure later Wednesday, hoping to reduce infections in classrooms.

In Miami, Florida’s largest school district with 334,000 students, a task force of medical experts recommended students should be required to wear masks when they return to classrooms next week. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho agreed and the school board was discussing the measure Wednesday.

DeSantis said at a Wednesday news conference near Fort Lauderdale that Broward, Miami-Dade and other districts that impose mask mandates are violating a law passed by the Legislature and signed by him that states it is up to parents to make health decisions.

Last month, DeSantis held a news conference with parents who opposed mask mandates in schools and issued an executive order to “protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children.” DeSantis’ order also tasked the education commissioner to find ways to make districts comply, including withholding state funds.

The districts were changing their policies following a recommendation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools wear masks.

“Forcing young kids to wear masks all day, these kindergartners, having the government to force them, that’s not defying me, that is defying the state of Florida’s laws,” DeSantis said. “This is not something we are making up. This is what the state law says.”

In Broward County, the state’s second-largest district with 261,000 students, two teachers and an assistant teacher died from COVID-19 last week. In Miami, a 13-year-old student and four district employees have died from the virus in recent weeks, Carvalho said.

Hospitalizations have risen this week in the state after slowing down over the weekend. Hospitals are reporting 16,721 patients with COVID-19, compared to Tuesday’s tally of 16,521, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 55% — more than 3,600 patients — of intensive care unit patients have COVID-19.

Many hospitals across the state are expecting critical staffing shortages in next week. Half the hospitals in Florida have stopped accepting transfer patients from other facilities.

“There can be no question that many Florida hospitals are stretched to their absolute limits,” said Mary Mayhew, president of the Florida Hospital Association.

The fire chief of a central Florida county on Wednesday asked that residents refrain from making 911 calls except for the most serious emergencies. The fire department for the county located between Tampa and Orlando typically responds to about 280 calls a day this time of year. In recent weeks, it has been responding to between 340 and 400 calls each day.

Most school districts have adopted optional mask policies or given options to parents to easily opt out of requirements. Mask-wearing is option in schools in Hillsborough County, the third-largest district, with more than 206,000 students. Within days, infections forced thousands of students into isolation, having tested positive for COVID-19, or into quarantine, which means they had close contact with a positive case.

By Wednesday morning, the number of COVID-19 cases in Hillsborough County schools stood at 1,695 students, teachers and staff, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. Through Tuesday, some 8,400 students and 307 employees were either in isolation or quarantine.

With so many classrooms being abandoned, the Hillsborough school board called an emergency meeting for Wednesday to address calls for a stricter mask policy, and possibly fewer quarantines for students who appear healthy despite being exposed.

Florida’s Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday for the Department of Education to further investigate two school districts to impose possible sanctions and report to the state Legislature, which could take additional action for violating rules such as not allowing opt-out for parents who don’t want their children wearing masks.

Despite this pressure, the Alachua County School Board, which serves nearly 30,000 students in the Gainesville area, voted Tuesday night to extend its mask mandate for another two months, WJXT reported. Alachua’s mandate requires a doctor’s note, violating the governor’s executive order to let students opt out without requiring any medical recommendations, referrals, or permissions, the station reported.

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Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy, Terry Spencer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

Freida Frisaro And Adriana Gomez Licon, The Associated Press