Two Florida school districts have announced plans to again mandate mask wearing to control the spread of the more contagious coronavirus delta variant.
Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to stop them, as well as any others that might follow their lead.
Standing behind a lectern with a sign reading “Free to Choose,” the governor announced Friday his plan to issue an executive order instructing the departments of education and health to write rules protecting parents’ right to decide whether their children will mask up in schools.
The order, released several hours after his speech, followed recent decisions by the Broward and Gadsden county school systems to require that students wear masks when classes start in August.
In it, the governor stated the two departments should use “all legal means available” to control the spread of COVID-19 without violating Floridians’ constitutional freedoms or parents’ rights.
“The question is, shouldn’t this be something the parent is best to evaluate?” DeSantis said during the news conference. He argued that mask wearing did not generate significantly different health outcomes in schools last year than in those that had no facial covering rules.
To give his order teeth, DeSantis authorized education commissioner Richard Corcoran to pursue all avenues to ensure that school districts comply, “including but not limited to withholding state funds from noncompliant school boards.” The governor and education department recently have threatened to cut financial support for districts that don’t follow their mandates, including Hillsborough County for its brief attempt to reject four charter school renewals.
Broward schools spokesperson Katherine Koch said the district planned to review the order and “consider what adjustments may be necessary to make to our face covering policy.”
DeSantis’s announcement comes at a time of rising infections and hospitalizations associated with the delta variant, and as public health experts sound warnings that the new strain is more infectious for everyone, including children, than the original virus. It can also infect the vaccinated, though they’re better protected from the worst symptoms.
In recent days the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called for mandatory masking of everyone in the schools.
The governor on Friday did not mention the fast-rising number of virus cases. He based his direction on a recently approved Florida law that says the government will not infringe on parental “fundamental rights” regarding their children’s education and health care.
“We’re in a situation where we need to make sure the parents’ rights are protected,” DeSantis said.
He added that he did not oppose mask requirements last year because he wanted to see children in schools. After a year spent watching the effects of masks, DeSantis said, he did not want to see the mandates continue.
If parents want their children to wear a mask, that’s fine, he said. If not, that’s also acceptable.
“That’s the fairest way to do it,” he said.
Ron Meyer, one of Florida’s leading education policy attorneys, questioned the governor’s authority to take such a step.
The state no longer is under a state of emergency, Meyer noted, meaning the local boards have the constitutional power to operate, control and supervise schools in their districts.
“I don’t know how Article IX of the Constitution could be more clear,” he said, suggesting the governor is creating an order “out of thin air” to accomplish his political goals.
Dennis Alfonso, a lawyer for the Pasco and Hernando school boards, agreed that the districts have the authority to require masks.
They’d have to go through the appropriate rule-making process, he explained, and they’d need a clear, evidence-based record that such a move was necessary.
“They legally could do it,” Alfonso said. “It’s just not easy to do.”
Meyer added that the governor’s definition of freedom of choice appeared situational. The state bans indoor smoking, for instance, he said, because of the effects second-hand smoke has on the people around you, regardless of your desire to smoke, he noted.
“How is this any different?” Meyer asked, referring to the use of masks to block germs from infecting others.
In recent days, DeSantis had hinted that he would call a special session of the Legislature over the school mask mandate issue.
On Thursday, he had calls with House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson. But it’s not clear what exactly DeSantis discussed with the legislative leaders.
After Friday’s press event, Simpson and Sprowls issued statements backing DeSantis on his call for the new emergency rules. Their offices did not answer questions about whether the rules meant legislators would not be brought back for a special session.
“While there are some public officials who will seek to use the power of government to compel uniformity and adherence to their preferred course of conduct, that approach is not in keeping with Florida values,” Sprowls said in his statement. “Gov. DeSantis recognizes that parents are in the best position to make choices for their children. His actions today demonstrate his faith and trust in our fellow Floridians, and he — and they — have my full support.”
A group of parents and educators came out to back the governor during his news conference at Two Meatballs in the Kitchen restaurant in Cape Coral.
They spoke of the difficulties they and their children faced during the past year with masking in place, and said students’ mental health and other needs deserved attention.
“We have the choice to raise our children the way we see fit,” parent Brenda Clark said at the event. “My message is, don’t stop fighting for your kids.”
Not all reaction was positive, though.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said the governor and Legislature should respect local control on this issue.
“Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need. We reject that kind of thinking,” Spar said in a released statement. “Instead, we ask Gov. DeSantis to allow all Florida’s citizens to have a voice by empowering the elected leaders of cities, counties and school districts to make health and safety decisions locally based on their unique needs and circumstances.”
He called on the governor to lead on other areas where consensus might be achieved, such as placing more nurses and counselors in schools, and ensuring all campuses have air conditioning.
The Florida School Boards Association shared that perspective.
“Communities ought to have the space to be able to make decisions locally based on their local priorities at any given time,” executive director Andrea Messina said. “Our school districts are very diverse. They have diverse needs, and they have locally elected constitutional officers who are elected to make decisions for that local community.”
Staff writers Kirby Wilson and Jake Sheridan contributed to this report.
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