Nervous but happy, Miami students back at school amid COVID-19 surge

Students arrive for their first day of school at the Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami, on August 23, 2021. Source: Chandan Khanna/AFP

The band played, cheerleaders performed a routine and everyone wore masks as one high school joined other Miami schools in reopening Monday amid a surge in the coronavirus pandemic.

The mask issue — whether students and staff should be ordered to wear them — has triggered a bitter dispute between Florida’s Republican governor and school officials in the Sunshine State.

Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest school district in the United States, welcomed students back after a year of remote learning — the norm across America because of the virus.

Bright and early, smiling youths took selfies while others who looked half asleep dragged their feet on their way into class. The pandemic was on everybody’s mind. “I am a bit nervous, but really excited,” said 17-year-old student Angel Rosanilla.

As COVID-19 cases surge in Florida due to the Delta variant, some school districts ordered students and staff to wear masks as classes resumed after the summer break, following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The move irked Governor Ron DeSantis, an ally of former president Donald Trump. Since the start of the global health crisis, the governor has refused to mandate mask use, arguing that to do so would violate people’s liberties.

On July 30, DeSantis signed an executive order barring schools from making masks mandatory. But seven school districts including Miami-Dade ignored the edict and went ahead.


Students in Miami schools wear facemasks as they attend their first day in school at the Barbara Goleman Senior High School in Miami. Source: Chandan Khanna/AFP

The state government hit back last week, giving two districts 48 hours to get in line or be punished with funding cuts targeting the salaries of school board members.

Masks in Miami schools

Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the Miami-Dade school district, defended his decision on masks. “This is not a political symbol. It is a precautionary, preventive measure,” he said during a visit Monday to Barbara Goleman.

Students seemed resigned to following the rule. What they want most after a year of remote learning is to be back together in the classroom, even if that means the hassle of wearing a mask.

Rosanilla, who is starting his last year, said he was glad to be back and determined to mask up.

“The cases are going back up so it’s good to stay safe,” he told AFP.

His classmate Ryan Alu agreed.

“Last year was very complicated and I hope that coming back here, things will change. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but I understand the decision,” said Alu.

Miami schools: Legal battle

In his legal battle with Miami schools, DeSantis insists he is defending the rights of parents to decide what is best for their kids.

Mayuli Flancebo, the mother of a student at Barbara Goleman, knows what she wants for her boy.

“You feel safer if everybody wears a mask,” said Flancebo, who is 38. “We are nervous, and worried about the rise in the coronavirus. Let’s hope we do not go back into quarantine.”

In counties where schools reopened before those in Miami, thousands of students had to go into quarantine after catching the virus or coming into contact with infected people.

The renegade school districts have won a few small victories in recent days.

A judge in Leon County, which includes the state capital Tallahassee, started Monday to consider a lawsuit filed by a group of parents against the governor’s mask-barring order.

These parents say the order violates a clause in the state constitution that guarantees a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system” of public schools.

President Joe Biden weighed in last week, tweeting that “we will do everything we can to support local school districts in safely reopening schools.”

Biden promised that federal funds would be used to cover the salaries of school board members, superintendents and other school officials if they are punished while “keeping our children safe.”