‘Gladiator Pit’: Florida’s School COVID War Is Somehow Uglier Than Ever
As cases skyrocket, Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing to penalize school districts for imposing mask mandates—and parents not only fear the virus but that public schools lose out.
MIAMI—With the Delta variant running rampant across Florida and cases of extremely sick children on the rise, Jerry Greenberg is terrified about sending his kids back to school in Pinecrest, an incorporated village in Miami-Dade County.
The 47-year-old has an 11-year-old daughter set to start sixth grade at Palmetto Middle School and a 14-year-old son poised to begin ninth grade at Palmetto Senior High. But with public school leaders across the state facing off against Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has insisted on banning mask mandates for kids, Greenberg is mulling a radical change.
“We have seriously considered taking our kids out and placing them in private schools,” Greenberg told The Daily Beast. “We’re scared about what could happen in a public school with maskless students. I am cautiously optimistic that the [Miami-Dade] school board will stand up to the governor.”
In a press statement last week, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Florida’s largest school district was re-evaluating its mask-optional policy, enacted last month, for the upcoming school year.
On Monday, a Miami-Dade Public Schools spokesperson said the district has not yet announced its revised policy, even as some other districts have moved to implement mask mandates—with some carve-outs that may or may not appease DeSantis.
At Palmetto Middle, a teacher for Greenberg’s daughter, Mayade Ersoff, told The Daily Beast that she and most of her colleagues desperately want students to wear masks. Ersoff fears the possibility she may get COVID-19—even though she is fully vaccinated—when she returns to work in two weeks.
It’s not an unreasonable concern, even if serious and deadly cases of coronavirus continue to almost exclusively hit unvaccinated people. Over the summer break, the Sunshine State has once again emerged as a pandemic epicenter. Even more alarming than higher-than-ever caseloads: the rising numbers of pediatric hospitalizations, as the number of kids with COVID-19 jumped 137 percent in the past month, according to CNN.
On Monday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Florida’s COVID-19 numbers from the weekend totaled 56,633 new cases, with a breakdown that far surpassed the state’s single-day record—set last Friday—for the pandemic. Hours later, the Florida Department of Health posted a tweet disputing the CDC’s figures:
The dire situation hasn’t stopped DeSantis, perhaps the country’s leading opponent of COVID-19-restrictions, from doing all he can to ensure anti-mask Floridians can send their children sans face coverings into public school classrooms.
On Friday, the same day Florida tallied 23,903 new coronavirus cases, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began, the state Department of Health and state Board of Education approved new rules limiting schools’ ability to enforce mask use. And on Monday, the governor’s office released a statement that superintendents and school board members who defy DeSantis could see their pay withheld.
Perhaps most significant to parents like Greenberg: The rules don’t apply to private and charter schools.
But rather than just more pandemic recklessness, critics like Ersoff—a 22-year veteran of Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest district in Florida—believes recent power plays by DeSantis, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Cocoran, and the state Board of Education hampering mask mandates have a secondary aim.
“The governor will use this fiasco to funnel kids to charter/private schools,” Ersoff told The Daily Beast. “Tax dollars are used to pay for school vouchers and leases to the companies that own the land the schools are on. And they donate to Republicans.”
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw dismissed the criticisms as nothing more than assumptions that giving families a choice in their kids’ education somehow erodes public schools. As long as public schools meet students’ needs and respect parental rights, then most parents will continue sending their children to public schools, Pushaw said.
“But if it turns out that some public schools are not meeting kids’ needs or respecting parents’ rights, fortunately those families will be empowered to pursue alternatives for their children,” Pushaw said. “At the end of the day, education funding should be for students, not systems. The priority is ensuring that every student has access to a high quality education that meets their unique needs.”
Spokespersons for the state health and education departments did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
It’s no secret that charter-school operators are traditionally some of the biggest donors to GOP politicians, though it remains to be seen how much cash the Friends of DeSantis political action committee will pull in from that crowd ahead of his re-election bid next year. Either way, like other right-wing Republicans, DeSantis has gone out of his way to highlight charter schools around the state since the pandemic began. Last month, he kicked off his proposal to give teachers $3,000 bonuses at BridgePrep Academy of Orange, a charter school in Orlando. Last August, he defended his executive order requiring in-person learning at public schools during a press conference at Winthrop College Prep Academy in Riverview.
Sitting next to DeSantis that day: John Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA, which owns Winthrop and is one of the largest operators in the nation. Hage was a member of DeSantis’ gubernatorial transition committee. DeSantis also signed a bill last year that advocates hailed as bolstering “school choice,” traditionally a nod to fans of charter and other private schools.
Another Miami-Dade parent, Emily Stone, told The Daily Beast she was hoping to send her 6-year-old daughter back to first grade at Coconut Grove Elementary School this year. The little girl spent the 2020-21 school year at The Gordon School, a private, non-charter school that teaches children from pre-K to fifth grade, according to Stone.
DeSantis forced her to reconsider.
“The likelihood of the school board passing an effective mask mandate is slim to none,” Stone said. “So I pulled her out of Coconut Grove again. The Gordon School has a mask mandate and is being very strategic about it. I can count the number of cases they had last year on one hand.”
According to the Miami Herald, a total of 135 pediatric hospitalizations related to COVID-19 were tallied in Florida as of last Tuesday, second only to Texas.
Teachers are scared both for their kids and themselves.
“I am terrified of being around unmasked students,” Ersoff told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “I know the classrooms are going to be packed. I am in a building where the windows don’t open and I have no cross-ventilation. It’s like they are throwing us into a gladiator pit.”
Miami-Dade Public Schools spokeswoman Jacqueyn Calzadilla said she would not be able to specifically comment about the concerns raised by Ersoff and Stone but that officials are meeting with the district’s team of medical experts on Aug. 16. “With a start date later than most school districts across Florida, we are continuing to closely monitor the latest developments,” Calzadilla said. “This will afford the District an additional opportunity to seek the guidance of our task force of public health advisors as we prepare to welcome all students back for in-person learning.”
Ersoff is not alone in her suspicions about a sinister GOP plot to undermine public schools in the name of parental freedom during a global pandemic. Public education advocates in Florida accuse DeSantis and GOP state leaders of leveraging COVID-19 hysteria to boost charter and private schools by purposefully worsening the situation at public ones.
On Friday, the state Board of Education also approved changes to a scholarship program that provides taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools. The new rule allows parents to apply for the vouchers if their progeny are subjected to “harassment” in their public schools because they are not wearing a mask or abiding by other COVID-19 restrictions.
Pushaw, the DeSantis spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast that pro-mask parents can also apply for vouchers if they want to send their kids to a private or charter school where masks are mandatory if their public school has a mask-optional policy.
Anna Eskamani, a Democratic state legislator from Orlando, told The Daily Beast that the scholarship program in which the private school vouchers are obtained was designed to provide school alternatives to children who are victims of bullying. “They changed the eligibility so that forcing a student to wear a mask is akin to bullying and harassment,” Eskamani said. “It’s an insult to kids who are really being bullied.”
The end goal is to convince parents that the best option is to send their kids to private or charter schools, Eskamani said. “This is all about painting public education as evil,” she said. “It is completely politically motivated.”
To be sure, some public school districts have begun announcing mask mandates for students in at least partial defiance of DeSantis, but the rules generally include a parental opt-out to comply with the governor’s executive order granting parents final say over their kids’ mask use. One exception is in Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee, where public schools superintendent Rocky Hanna announced that a doctor’s note stating a health reason will be required for any students in pre-K through eighth grade who don’t want to wear masks.
Andrew Spar, president of the teacher’s union Florida Education Commission, told The Daily Beast it’s clear DeSantis’ actions, as well as those taken by the Republican-led Department of Education, are politically motivated. “They keep looking to create incentives for people to go to private schools by making it harder for public schools,” Spar said. “Now it’s making vouchers available if you don’t like mask mandates. The governor is using politics to divide the community and destroy public education. He won’t be successful.”
School politics aside, medical professionals said preventing school districts from effectively enforcing mask policies will only prolong the pandemic—and create unnecessary risks for children, who appear to be more susceptible to the Delta variant.
Ann Marie Wong, a family-practice physician based in Miami, said the children she sees don’t really mind wearing masks. “It’s just in the parents’ heads that wearing one is harmful,” Wong told The Daily Beast. “I had dinner last night with the principal of a Montessori school and she told me about parents who are sending her emails being very vehement about kids not wearing masks in school.”
Jill Roberts, an epidemiology professor at the University of South Florida, said some studies suggest that mask wearing can impact a child’s interpretation of social cues. But the data have not demonstrated a long-term impact and do not model situations in schools in which masks are routinely removed for meals and outdoor activities.
“The recommendation for masks is designed to provide a mitigation in response to [the] current threat from a highly infectious variant. It is not considered permanent and will likely be irrelevant in the next few months as COVID vaccines are approved for those under age 12,” Roberts said in an email. “There are papers too numerous to count that demonstrate that masks stop the spread of aerosol and droplet pathogens.”
To Greenberg, the dad contemplating taking his kids out of public schools, the idea of the Board of Education making scholarships to private schools available to parents who disagree with a public school’s mask policy is “crazy.”
At the same time, he said he can understand if a parent decides to apply for one if it means easing their way toward a private school with strong, enforced safety measures.
“If that is what it takes to keep your kids safe,” Greenberg said, “I know most parents, Democrats or Republicans, all we care about is the health and safety of our kids.”