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Girl, 12, talks to Florida official about ‘need’ for face masks in schools

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A 12-year-old girl met with a Florida official on Monday to tell her why she thinks there is a need for face mask mandates in schools during the 2021-22 school year.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried, who is campaigning to be a 2022 gubernatorial candidate against Gov. Ron DeSantis, met virtually with Lila Hartley. The Duval County student sent a letter to school district officials asking them to consider the safety of children who aren’t allowed to get the COVID vaccine.

Lila is especially concerned about her 10-year-old brother’s safety amid the ongoing COVID surge.

“I am so worried ... I don’t know what I would do if he died ... masks save lives that’s a fact ... many others would feel so much safer if masks were required,” Lila wrote in her letter.

She is getting ready to start 7th-grade on Tuesday and to defend her argument she cited the recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics to mandate face mask use at schools regardless of vaccination status.

Severe illness due to COVID remains “uncommon” among children, according to the AAP. But with 179 pediatric patients, Florida has the highest number of COVID-related pediatric hospitalizations, according to the CDC.

“Masks are important so we can continue to enjoy in-person school and not have to hurt families and staff by this terrible virus,” Lila wrote.

Lila told Fried one of her friends got sick with COVID last week. Fried said she was committed to spreading her message. Lila told reporters going back to school is “a little bit scary” because she doesn’t know if she is going to be “in danger.”

“We need our school board members to be stepping up; do what’s right for our communities,” Fried said.

In South Florida, the School Board of Broward County voted in favor of a face mask mandate before Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order to protect “parents’ freedom to choose” on July 30th. The School Board of Miami-Dade County had yet to make a decision Monday.

“We are seeing all over the state, school boards ... having those conversations. We are seeing anywhere between 5 or 10 last week that had some type of mask mandates, right now they have an opt-out option,” Fried told reporters after her meeting with Lila.

The DeSantis administration has been defending the order. The Florida Department of Education threatened to withhold “state funds, discretionary grant funds, discretionary lottery funds, or any other funds” from school districts with face mask mandates. Fried said President Joe Biden’s administration is ready to step in if this happens.

“We can’t be harming our kids here. They aren’t the enemy; the virus is the enemy,” Fried said, later adding a message for DeSantis: “You are not hurting the school board members by taking away funding; you are hurting Lila and her friends ... Back down on this one!”

The Florida Department of Health advised “wearing masks in public” in June. On Friday, DeSantis office announced the FDOH and FDOE directed “that any COVID-19 mitigation actions taken by school districts” need to ensure “that parents’ right to make decisions regarding the masking of their children is protected.”

According to the CDC, schools and child care programs can make exceptions for children who cannot wear a mask or cannot safely wear a mask.

After her meeting with Lila, Fried celebrated a Leon County victory on Twitter: “Florida’s Capital City and County @LeonSchools just mandated masks grades K-8th grade. Thank you Superintendent Rocky Hanna.”

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told This Week In South Florida that the COVID-19 task force of medical and public health experts guiding Miami Dade County Public Schools will meet on Aug. 16. The first day of school in Broward is Aug. 18 and in Miami-Dade is Aug. 23.

Latest cumulative data from FDOH (July 30 to Aug. 5 report)

This is the latest FDOH pediatric data on COVID. (FDOH)

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About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.