TALLAHASSEE — At least two Florida school districts want students to get permission from a health care professional before opting out of wearing masks this fall through new policies that “violate” rules created by the DeSantis administration to thwart mandatory face coverings on K-12 campuses.
By requiring a doctor to endorse students going maskless, Leon and Alachua counties are pushing stricter health guidelines than many districts that are working to meet the demands of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants parents to have the ultimate choice. Education leaders in both counties run the risk of losing funding — namely their pay — for enacting more stringent rules than recommended by state agencies, signaling the latest policy scrap surrounding masks.
“If something happened and things went sideways for us … and heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida,” Rocky Hanna, superintendent of Leon County Schools, told reporters Monday.
“If there’s an out and I didn’t take the out, and I didn’t do what was best for the children here in Tallahassee and Leon County, that’s on me,” he added.
Florida school districts must give parents the choice to opt-out of any local rules requiring students to wear masks under an emergency rule issued Friday by the state Department of Health. This policy is spurring many school districts to rethink making masks mandatory for students, yet Leon and Alachua counties have taken the boldest stance on opting-out so far.
In Leon County, masks will be required for all students without a doctor’s note in kindergarten through eighth grade when classes begin on Wednesday, Hanna announced Monday. Alachua County school leaders on Friday night rolled out their opt-out policy, which requires the signature of “a licensed Florida medical doctor, a licensed osteopathic physician or a licensed advanced registered nurse practitioner.”
In both cases, the local rules conflict with moves taken by DeSantis to curb district mask mandates, according to DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw.
“All parents deserve the freedom to choose whether to opt out their own child,” Pushaw wrote in a statement. “This should not be contingent on their ability to procure a doctor’s note. These policies violate the spirit of the (executive order).”
State leaders, including a Board of Education member, have warned of withholding funds from schools that don’t comply with making masks an optional precaution in 2021-22. Yet Florida’s student mask polices have come under fire from Democrats and parents, with at least two legal challenges currently underway.
State Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation), sent a letter Monday to schools superintendents and some 300 local school board members urging them to implement mask policies in the face of “unprecedented pressure to bow to the wishes of a Governor.”
Hanna, for one, said it was “very concerning” a possibility that would ultimately hurt students.
But the DeSantis administration made it clear on Monday that it’s local school board members and superintendents that could be hurting financially — not the schools.
“The State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law,” Pushaw wrote.
DeSantis has strongly opposed blanket mask policies as part of his resistance to tightening Covid-19 restrictions in the face of the Delta variant sweeping the state. DeSantis has come under increased criticism from President Joe Biden, Democrats and health care professionals for downplaying the severity of the virus and preventing cities and schools from enacting public health mandates.
Florida reported 13,596 Covid-19 cases for children 12 and younger during the week of July 30 through Aug. 1, notching a 20.5 percent positivity rate for the age group. The state saw 23,903 new Covid-19 cases on Saturday along with 13,435 hospitalizations, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, the DeSantis administration maintains that masks don’t make enough difference in school-age children to be required statewide or locally. Florida has reported eight deaths among children 16 and younger throughout the pandemic, according to the state Department of Health.
In addition to taking action against mask mandates, the DeSantis administration also crafted a new rule to protect students from “Covid-19 harassment,” a term coined by state officials to give parents another outlet to avoid mask rules.
It creates a path for parents to transfer their children to a private school or even another school district under the “Hope Scholarship” voucher program — a type of award that’s typically reserved for students who are victims of violence or bullying at their school.