Opposition grows to DeSantis school mask edict. ‘One size does not fit all.’

District officials call for local control to contain the delta variant as pro-mask parents increase pressure.
An image from a 2020 Pinellas County school district video shows elementary school students wearing masks and sitting behind protective coverings while at lunch. This year, an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis is stopping many Florida districts from requiring masks, but some are starting to push back.
An image from a 2020 Pinellas County school district video shows elementary school students wearing masks and sitting behind protective coverings while at lunch. This year, an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis is stopping many Florida districts from requiring masks, but some are starting to push back. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Aug. 4, 2021|Updated Aug. 4, 2021

Soon after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order last week to ban school mask mandates, the Broward County school district signaled its intent to back down from its plans.

Broward, one of two Florida districts with a mandate on tap, said it would comply with the governor’s demand.

Two days later, Broward officials changed their tune, joining a handful of other Florida districts who are starting to test the order’s limits. Adding to the pressure are pro-mask parents — including groups on both sides of Tampa Bay — who are pushing back as the coronavirus delta variant gains ground.

Citing questions about whether DeSantis’ order is valid, Broward on Wednesday announced its mask rule would remain intact while officials review the edict from the governor’s office.

“We have legal counsel looking into the legality of the order,” Broward School Board member Sarah Leonardi said during a Zoom conversation with U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the St. Petersburg Democrat who is running to oust DeSantis as governor. “Our school board is actively evaluating that. We’ll be discussing that at a special meeting” on Aug. 10.

Related: DeSantis issues executive order to halt school mask mandates

Broward was not the only source of resistance.

A group of Pinellas County parents, for instance, began an email campaign to urge their board members to have a special meeting on the topic.

“I’m just hoping for our leaders to be leaders and make the tough decision so our children can be safe,” parent Stephanie Cox said during the Zoom discussion with Crist.

In Tampa, Debra Setzer has authored two petitions. The first one, attracting nearly 4,000 signatures, called for mandatory masks in Hillsborough schools. The second, signed so far by about 400 people, acknowledges that a student mask mandate might be ruled illegal. It asks for other precautionary measures including mask cohorts, in which children who are wearing masks can be separated from those without them.

Pinellas board vice chairperson Eileen Long said districts find themselves in a difficult situation, squeezed between anti-mask activists, pro-mask advocates and a governor who has threatened to withhold state funding if districts bring back the requirement.

“The parents that want the masks were very quiet. Now they’re getting loud,” Long said. “It seems we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”

She anticipated no change, though, saying the governor’s threat carried too many risks.

The Pinellas board’s unwillingness to hold a special meeting on the issue irked member Caprice Edmond, who wants her colleagues to at least consider actions similar to those other districts are taking.

“I don’t know how they sleep at night. This is not okay,” Edmond said. “It’s shameful that we haven’t even had this conversation.”

In Hillsborough, there is an additional reason to avoid even a brief interruption of funding.

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In April, education commissioner Richard Corcoran ordered the district to prepare a plan to fix its ailing finances and maintain a general fund reserve of at least 2 percent, as required by law. Corcoran went on to warn that, should the district fall down in its fiscal responsibilities, he would move to declare a financial emergency that could place all spending under direct state control.

Speaking Wednesday at the district’s annual back-to-school news conference, School Board chairperson Lynn Gray said that “there is no comfort zone” in the current situation. “There are no guarantees,” she said. “So that’s the worry. We don’t have the control. And that’s so frustrating, isn’t it?”

In other parts of Florida:

• The Alachua County School Board voted Tuesday to impose a two-week mask mandate to open the school year, citing the advice of University of Florida health care experts.

• The Duval County School Board decided to require masks, with the caveat that parents could file a form to opt out of the mandate.

• Leon County school superintendent Rocky Hanna held a news conference Wednesday declaring his intention to implement a temporary student mask mandate in grades prekindergarten through 8 through the end of August.

Hanna said his June decision to make face coverings optional no longer was correct, given the rising number of children being hospitalized because of the coronavirus.

Before issuing the mandate, though, Hanna sent DeSantis a letter asking for reconsideration of the executive order.

“It’s never too late to turn back and do the right thing,” Hanna said. “If we don’t have a response by the end of the week, we will have to make a decision.”

In questioning the governor’s order, Broward board member Leonardi noted that DeSantis simply had instructed the departments of education and health to write rules that would protect schools from COVID-19 without imposing on parents’ rights to make decisions about their children’s health care.

Those rules have yet to be written, she observed, leaving districts in the dark over what it really entails.

Writing rules takes time, though. The law DeSantis referred to requires written proposals to be published in advance, as well as time for public hearings and workshops.

As a result, some noted it could take weeks before the State Board of Education can take up any such rule. Students begin returning to classes on Tuesday.

Hanna, the Leon superintendent, said he hoped the governor would short-circuit the process by leaving local jurisdictions to make critical decisions in the same way he aims to stop the federal government from forcing mandates upon the state.

“I am asking him for autonomy, flexibility and local control,” Hanna said. “There are 67 counties in this state, and one size does not fit all.”

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

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