In private meeting, DeSantis pushes against masks in schools

The discussion came a day before the CDC reversed course on mask guidelines in schools.
FILE - This May 4 2021 file photo shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaking during a news conference at West Miami Middle School in Miami. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP, File)
FILE - This May 4 2021 file photo shows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaking during a news conference at West Miami Middle School in Miami. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP, File) [ MATIAS J. OCNER | AP ]
Published July 27, 2021|Updated July 28, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday gathered a collection of scientists who railed against masking kids for the upcoming school year, a move that came just one day before federal guidelines were revised to say everyone should wear masks inside K-12 schools amid a national surge of COVID-19 cases.

“Masking students is inconvenient, I know, but will allow them to learn and be with their classmates with the best available protection,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Tuesday, shortly after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said children and adults, regardless of their vaccination status, should wear masks heading into in-person classes in the fall.

The new federal mask guidelines are almost certain to brew more tension in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has been doubling down on his opposition to mask children as school boards across the state face more intense debates over whether children should wear masks inside schools when in-person learning resumes in August.

On Monday, DeSantis made his stance on school mask mandates very clear during a closed-door panel discussion. He invited a group of four physicians, a parent and a student, all of whom had views that aligned with the governor’s handling of the pandemic, to discuss the issue of mask mandates.

No public, no reporters allowed

The panel discussion was closed to the public, and no reporters were invited. But a video of the 50-minute panel discussion was later posted by the governor’s office on Rumble, a video platform that is frequently used by DeSantis and that has emerged as a conservative alternative to YouTube.

In the video, DeSantis talked about his “fear” of having the federal government or local school districts push for mandatory masking of school children.

“Our view is that this should absolutely not be imposed,” the governor said. “It should not be mandated.”

Related: DeSantis looks to ban mask mandates if schools, feds require them

The panelists — including Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford Medical School; Dr. Cody Meissner, the chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease and professor of pediatrics at the Tufts University School of Medicine; and Dr. Mark McDonald, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychiatrist — argued that “masking children is child abuse” and that mask mandate recommendations for children were “virtue signaling” and based on little evidence.

“My position is simple. Masking children is child abuse. There is no evidence to support the contention that masks prevent the transmission of respiratory illness through viruses at all,” McDonald said during the panel discussion.

On Tuesday, the governor’s office explained that the event was a “closed discussion” that had been built around a previously scheduled interview DeSantis had agreed to do with one of the panelists, Bhattacharya, who is working on a documentary about the pandemic.

DeSantis held a second no-notice, closed meeting on Tuesday, this time in Surfside, where the deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers South Condo happened a month ago.

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Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett said DeSantis met with him at the Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club, where the governor also met with families of the Champlain Towers South Condo collapse. Burkett, who spoke with DeSantis about the future of the building site and the need to quickly investigate what caused the collapse, said DeSantis has regularly met with Surfside families to offer his “continuous support” and disburse private donations to them.

“That is a priority of his,” Burkett said.

CDC changes course

The federal mask guidelines issued Tuesday are reversing course on an earlier recommendation suggesting fully vaccinated students and teachers were safe to attend school without a mask.

DeSantis has not publicly commented on the new federal guidelines. DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw, however, told Fox News that the federal guidelines were not “based on science.”

“Mandating masks for vaccinated people erodes public trust and confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccines. To me it appears that the government wants to be perceived as ‘doing something’ during a seasonal infection surge, even if their policy does not necessarily make people safer,” Pushaw told Fox News.

But the governor has twice said that he is willing to call a special session of the Legislature to outlaw mask mandates if there is a push by the federal government or school districts to impose them.

“I know our Legislature feels strongly about it,” DeSantis said on Monday. “I know they’re interested in coming in, even in a special session to be able to provide protections for parents and kids who just want to breathe freely and don’t want suffering under these masks during the school year.”

DeSantis has not formally called for a special session. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, did not immediately respond to text messages seeking comment on a potential legislative session on the matter.

For months, mask-wearing has been a politically divisive issue, particularly in schools, and the federal guidelines issued Tuesday could intensify the debate over whether students need to wear masks inside schools when in-person learning resumes in August for the coming school year.

Many school boards have been facing renewed calls, from both mask proponents and opponents, to consider the issues, as Florida experiences a surge of COVID-19 cases and a slowing vaccination effort.

The issue was expected to surface Tuesday during school board meetings in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. In Broward County, the school board was going to discuss the issue of masks, but the in-person meeting was called off after a group of anti-mask protesters refused to wear masks inside the building.

DeSantis’ administration has been trying to move away from mask mandates for several months. In April, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a memo to school superintendents to request they revise their school district’s mask policy, if they had one, to be voluntary instead of mandatory for the 2021-22 school year.

At the time, Corcoran said data showed districts’ face-covering policies do not impact the spread of the coronavirus; that families and individuals should maintain their ability to make a decision unique to their circumstances; and that broad sweeping mandatory face-covering policies “serve no remaining good at this point in our schools.” But he did not include any data or studies to back up his reasons in the memo.

On Monday, DeSantis reiterated his skepticism about the science behind mask requirements.

“Can they point to something and say, well, gee, the Chicago school district had a mask requirement, this other school district didn’t and look how poorly the school district that didn’t have the mask requirement performed? Are there even examples of that?” DeSantis said.

Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this report.