FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (WSVN) - Students of all ages will no longer be required to wear masks on campuses in Miami-Dade and Broward County public schools following a vote from the Broward County School Board and an announcement from Miami-Dade County Schools’ superintendent.

BCPS board members reached their decision to make face coverings “strongly encouraged” but no longer mandatory after a 7-1 vote, just before 6 p.m., Tuesday.

The decision to expand the mandate to include elementary and middle schools follows a recommendation from BCPS Interim Superintendent Dr. Vickie Cartwright.

It is set to go into effect Nov. 20, the beginning of their Thanksgiving break.

“We also wanted to make sure that gave ample opportunity for our students and our families who wanted to go out and receive their first vaccinations, that they had the ability to do that,” said Cartwright.

Hours earlier, M-DCPS Superintendent Alberto Carvalho confirmed their own major shift in policy during a news conference.

“On the basis of dramatically improved health conditions, and the reality that the vast majority of our schools currently have zero active COVID cases, we are ready to relax the mandatory mask protocol,” he said.

However, school board officials from both counties indicate wearing masks indoors is still strongly encouraged.

“We are still strongly encouraging masks because we know we are not totally free of the pandemic,” said Broward County School Board Chair Dr. Rosalind Osgood.

“Conditions are very good, but they may shift if we don’t do the right thing,” said Carvalho, “so we will maintain all other protocols in our schools: the social distancing, utilizing non-traditional spaces, ensuring the deep sanitization cycles in our schools, the deployment of advanced technologies in our schools to guarantee appropriate air ventilation.”

In addition, parents in Miami-Dade County who do not want their children to wear face coverings will be required to fill out an application that will be available online starting Wednesday, with the change in policy going into effect on Friday.

Parents in Broward will not need to opt out.

The latest developments come as COVID-19 cases have reached record lows across South Florida. COVID-related hospitalizations have also come down.

Officials in both districts said their decisions were based on science, improving conditions, low positivity rates and vaccination availability.

Now that children ages 5 to 11 are able to be vaccinated, the superintendent said, parents have options.

“For the parents who still have concerns about COVID-19 vaccination, this is no different than mumps, than [tuberculosis], rubella or any accepted vaccination that has been deployed in this country and has saved countless lives, period,” he said.

Carvalho said student achievement has significantly suffered because of COVID, and now that it seems that we are on the other side of it, something needs to change.

“We are refocusing our attention 100% on student achievement, student attendance and providing students with the opportunities they need to accelerate their learning toward their full potential,” he said.

While school officials still encourage students and staff to wear masks, they will revisit their policies if circumstances change.

“If there is a significant surge, we are poised to, obviously, take the appropriate steps to address those dynamic health conditions in our community,” said Carvalho.

“Our policy has a stipulation that if positivity rates get to 5%, that we will address the policy in our next time that we meet as a group, even as an emergency meeting,” said Osgood.

Tuesday night, Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco issued a statement that reads in part, “The School Board of Broward County’s decision today to make masks optional was based on the decrease in positivity and hospitalization numbers in South Florida. The availability of vaccines for all school-aged children is a very important step in continuing to mitigate the spread of the virus, and I hope parents will seriously consider getting their children vaccinated and recommending that they still wear masks in school.”

When M-DCPS made face coverings optional for high school students last week, about 9,000 parents filled out the form to have their children opt out of mask wearing.

M-DCPS officials said they will make vaccinations available for children ages 5 to 11, beginning on Friday with 12 sites before expanding to 70 sites at elementary and middle schools across the county by next week. More information will be available on M-DCPS’ website later this week.

Broward Schools will begin vaccinating children 5-11 on Wednesday at several sites, including Country Ridge Elementary in Coral Springs, Quiet Waters Elementary in Deerfield Beach and Tradewinds Elementary School in Coconut Creek. For more information, click here.

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