Punishing school districts requiring masks is ‘purely political,’ she said.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is imploring school districts to require masks for students after revealing data showing more COVID-19 cases in districts that don’t require masks.
The Democratic Commissioner, a gubernatorial candidate hoping to deny Gov. Ron DeSantis a second term, released the data compiled from school districts Thursday morning. Thursday afternoon, the Board of Education will consider whether 11 districts violated state Health Department emergency rules when they implemented masking requirements.
DeSantis and his administration have argued that mask mandates haven’t reduced the spread of COVID-19.
“Ron DeSantis is lying to you about masks in schools … In every single case, kids were better off in school districts that required masks than school districts that did not,” Fried said.
The three school districts that required masks from the first day of school — Alachua, Broward and Miami-Dade counties — have more than 3.5 times fewer COVID-19 cases per student than school districts that never required masks. School districts with increasingly strict masking rules, from no rules and parental opt-outs to medical opt-outs and complete masking, also saw fewer cases per student.
Cases also spiked in almost every school district during the third or fourth weeks of school.
Despite that, the DeSantis’ administration has withheld funds from school districts to target school board members that mandated masks without allowing parents to opt their children out of those requirements. Enforcing the Health Department’s emergency rules has already led to a showdown with President Joe Biden’s administration over Alachua and Broward county schools’ requirements.
“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,” Fried said.
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 comes 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.”
“You need to leave this alone and let our local school boards do the job that they were elected to do,” she said.
When asked about the data Fried compiled, DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw pointed to the roughly proportional decline in case counts among the school-age population in districts with mask mandates compared to those without in September. Positivity rates similarly declined, which she said refuted the claims that mask mandates have a positive impact.
Fried is not an epidemiologist or a scientist, she added in a statement posted on Twitter after the Commissioner appeared on CNN.
“Conducting research on infectious diseases is not the competence of the Agriculture Commissioner or FDACS,” Pushaw said. “It is surprising if any member of the press would take her at her word as though she is an infectious disease expert.”
Furthermore, she disputed claims that the Health Department’s data is hidden, adding that Fried “cherry picked” data.
“Commissioner Fried is again pandering to conspiracy theories who believe, without evidence, that ‘Florida is hiding the COVID-19 data.,’” Pushaw said.
The U.S. Department of Education granted Alachua County Public Schools $148,000 on Sept. 23 and Broward County Public Schools $420,957 last week through Project SAFE, a federal program created to protect schools flouting state mask mandate bans. However, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced Monday the state would also dock the equivalent of the federal aid from school district budgets.
The state rules require school districts to allow parents to opt out of any school district student masking rules. Also, state rules allow parents to decide whether their children who have been exposed to the virus will quarantine and stay home from school.
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