MIAMI (AP) — The superintendent of the school district in Florida’s capital said Monday that he will require students to wear masks amid an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations fueled by the delta variant, defying the governor’s attempts to block schools from imposing such a mandate.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office responded by saying the state’s Board of Education could move to withhold salaries from the superintendent or school board members. Though the Leon County mandate allows exemptions for students with a physician’s or psychologist’s note, it doesn’t give parents the authority to opt out, as DeSantis wanted.
Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna announced in a livestreamed announcement that children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade will be required to wear masks when classes resume in Tallahassee on Wednesday.
“I did a lot of soul searching, a lot of thinking,” Hanna said. “If, heaven forbid, we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida. I can’t.”
Ordered by DeSantis, the Florida Department of Health issued an emergency rule last week saying districts must allow parents to decide whether their children will wear masks. DeSantis’ office said in a statement that the Leon County district’s new policy “blatantly violates the spirit of the executive order and the rules.”
The superintendent said he had sent a letter to DeSantis asking for permission to enforce a temporary mask mandate, but received no response.
The Republican governor issued an executive order in late July for the education and health departments to come up with ways of punishing school districts that mandate mask-wearing in classrooms. DeSantis maintains that enforcing masks violates parental rights. He cites Florida’s new Parents Bill of Rights law that says parents have the freedom to make decisions about their children’s health and education.
Two Florida school districts first stepped up last week to announce that they would follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they restart classes later this week. Four others have adopted mask policies since then, and more are having discussions this week. But most have clarified that parents can opt out.
The CDC released a number of new cases for Saturday and Sunday that beat the single-day record by the thousands earlier on Monday. But the Florida Department of Health said in a statement posted on Twitter that the numbers were wrong and that the federal agency had “combined multiple days of data.”
On Monday, more than 13,600 people in Florida were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and more than 2,800 of them required intensive care.
State Sen. Lauren Book, the Democratic leader, sent a letter to the 67 superintendents asking them to implement mask rules due to the rise in cases and hospitalizations.
“We understand that public schools, school districts, and school boards are facing unprecedented pressure to bow to the wishes of a Governor and administration adamantly opposed to any measure that might be perceived as counter to future political ambitions,” Book wrote. “But we believe in and support local rule.”
On Friday, Florida’s Board of Education approved an emergency rule granting private school vouchers for children who feel they are being harassed by a district’s COVID-19 safety policies, including mask requirements. Traditionally, vouchers have been awarded to children who are being bullied.
The board of one the largest school districts in Broward County will be discussing the mask mandate on Tuesday.
Jennifer Ellis, a mother of two sons from that district, said many parents are scared about their children getting infected and are now struggling with what to do. She said she worries about her unvaccinated 11-year-old boy, who is severely autistic, but able to wear masks.
“If you don’t feel comfortable sending your kid back, there are no options,” Ellis said. “I wasn’t worried until the delta (variant) came along. If the kids get infected, that’s going to throw us into quarantine and close schools. That is what is harmful for the children. I just want the kids to be healthy.”
In Orange County, home to Orlando, school officials changed their policy to require masks while making it very easy for students to opt out. All employees and visitors will be required to wear masks, but they don’t get to opt out.
“Parents, just send a note, a one-liner, saying, ‘I’ve decided to opt out.’ It’s as simple as that,” said Barbara Jenkins, superintendent for Orange County Public Schools. “We respect parents’ decisions.”
Both policies will last for the first month of in-person classes and then be reevaluated.
Officials in Orlando said Monday that they would be offering vaccines at Camping World Stadium near downtown starting Tuesday to accommodate increasing demand. Last week, twice as many people got vaccinated in Orange County than during a similar time frame in early July.
Associated Press reporters Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.
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