Masks continue to pit Florida local school boards against Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration.
So far, 13 public school districts have decided to require masks, a violation of DeSantis’ order prohibiting mandates. Financial sanctions for some school districts have followed and been challenged.
As the fight over who gets to decide continues to play out in court, we asked our Tampa Bay state lawmakers where they stand and whether they’d be in favor of calling everyone for a special session to sort things out.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he thinks local school districts should do what they think is best in the moment, and would oppose a special session to discuss mask mandates. He doesn’t agree with the financial sanctions against school board members.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he thinks the governor has the situation under control and there’s no need for discussion at a special session.
He said he’s in favor of a parent opt-out, like the parent’s bill of rights would allow.
“I think you know the governor has to enforce the law on the books,” Brandes said.
Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, backed the school board in her district, Hillsborough, which adopted a plan to mandate masks unless there’s a medical opt-out. She said a special session would be inappropriate.
“School district leaders are doing exactly what needs to be done -- protecting our students -- and should not have to worry about financial sanctions for putting common-sense, evidence-based, and CDC recommended policies in place,” Cruz said in a statement.
Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, said he’s been a longtime advocate of parent’s rights and foster parent’s rights. He believes parents should have the ultimate say-so when it comes to mask wearing.
Albritton said when a law is in place and it’s violated by school board members, it’s only reasonable there be a punishment.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said she’s in favor of a parent-opt out and would oppose a special session because the governor has been clear about his intent.
Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, said a special session for masks would be inappropriate when there was never a special session called to deal with the burdens of the pandemic, like the unemployment issues.
“The thought that now they would hold a special session to stop local governments from acting to keep kids safe is abhorrent but sadly on-brand,” Learned said in a statement.
He said school board members and superintendents shouldn’t be punished for complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directives and advice from health officials.
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, also backed the Hillsborough school district and said it should be the school board’s decision.
“Why would you whittle somebody’s paycheck because they want to save a life?” Hart said.
As someone who has several ill family members, Hart said the issue of mask wearing is personal for her. Her grandchildren have also been sent home to isolate just a few weeks into school. Hart disagrees with a special session and said it should be up to local rule, but that a medical opt-out is the strongest protection.
Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, said she believes in local control and it should be the decision of the districts, which is why she would oppose a special session. Ideally, she said schools would have a strong mask mandate with a medical opt-out only.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, wants to listen to health experts and have school districts follow the guidance given to them by such experts. She said that includes allowing doctor-opt outs. Driskell would oppose a special session.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, supports what the governor has done around mask mandates and said he’s in favor of a parent opt-out, along with sanctions for school board members who supported tighter mask mandates.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said it’s unfortunate that Pinellas Schools aren’t using the tighter form of a mask mandate other counties, like Hillsborough, are.
“I think that it is really really tragic that we have politicians in Tallahassee that are playing politics here when we have local elected school board members and leaders that are following the advice of public health officials,” Diamond said.
Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, said a special session would just be red meat for a Republican base and wouldn’t serve a real purpose.
She called Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran withholding money from local districts who enacted medical opt-outs a petty fight.
“I think that we have to leave it to the local school boards to decide what is best of the people in their school district and in their county,” Rayner said.
Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Bradenton, said if school districts won’t respect parent’s rights, the Legislature should step in with a special session.
“Any policy should reduce the barriers to parents exercising their rights,” Gregory said in a statement. “If a parent sends their child to school without a mask, they’ve already chosen to opt-out.”
A number of local representatives did not respond to questions sent to them via emails and calls for comment. Sens. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton and Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, did not return request for comment. Reps. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, Lawrence McClure, R-Dover, Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, Traci Koster, R-Tampa, Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, Linda Chaney, R-St. Pete Beach, William Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, Ardian Zika, R-Land O’ Lakes, Randall Scott Maggard, R-Dade City, and Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, Josie Tomkow, R-Polk City, Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, Sam Killebrew, R-Winter Haven, and Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, did not return request for comment.
Correction: Darryl Rouson is a state senator. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect office.