TALLAHASSEE — Florida school districts are moving to resist Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order barring schools from implementing mask requirements for kids, setting up a fight with the Republican governor who has resisted any Covid-related mandates.
Late Tuesday night, school board members in Alachua County in north Florida voted to require all students to wear masks during the first two weeks of school. And Wednesday morning, Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, announced it’s seeking a mandatory mask rule for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Both are direct rejections of DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting schools from enacting mask requirements for students.
“I don’t think that we need to get in any kind of match with the governor,” said Robert Hyatt, a school board member in Alachua County, where two custodians died from the virus in the last few days. “To me, it’s not being defiant. It’s being reactive to what the situation is.”
Even the Broward County School District, which just days ago said it would comply with DeSantis’ order, announced Wednesday that it would keep its mask mandate in place for the foreseeable future.
The recent moves highlight how school districts across Florida are coping with the surge in coronavirus cases while grappling with DeSantis’ rejection of Covid mandates. The governor, who has consistently downplayed the threat of the virus, has banned cities and schools from putting in place Covid requirements like masks or vaccine passports.
District leaders are left to choose: Eliminate mask mandates or face the loss of state funding.
“As controversial as it may be, I absolutely believe this is the right thing to do temporarily until we have a better understanding of the Delta variant and the impact it has on school-aged children,” said Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna on Wednesday.
The state Department of Health reported 10,785 new Covid-19 infections in children under 12 years old between July 23 and 29, while more than 11,500 hospitalizations were reported Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that Florida saw more than 50,000 new infections and 100 deaths over a recent three-day span. Florida now makes up roughly one in five new infections in America.
Amid this spike, school districts across the state are attempting to craft new rules to keep kids safe while also following DeSantis’ orders. In Duval County, school officials voted Tuesday to make masks mandatory for students — with the caveat that parents can opt out of it.
DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw, however, said state agencies are finalizing health and education emergency rules this week that allow parents to choose whether their kids wear masks.
“School districts will be expected to allow parents to make this choice,” she said.
Many other Florida school districts are requiring masks for teachers, visitors and vendors on campuses. But Alachua, Leon and Broward are among the first to push for masking students despite DeSantis’ order. School leaders acknowledged that implementing mandatory mask rules at the behest of DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran could ultimately hurt them financially if the state fights back.
“Corcoran and his team — they will come after our money,” Leanetta McNealy, Alachua County’s school board chair, said Tuesday. “I’d rather them come after our money than we’re putting people in [funeral homes].”
In Alachua, school officials see it as a matter of life or death. Besides the two janitors who died, the school district is dealing with 15 positive Covid-19 cases, with classes days away from starting, Carlee Simon, the local school superintendent, said Tuesday.
Alachua’s school board, which represents some 28,000 students around the Gainseville area, is expected to reexamine its district-wide mask requirement on Aug. 17.
“We’re running into a situation where we are literally losing our workforce,” Simon said.
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