DeSantis vows to let parents ignore local school board decisions on masks

Florida’s Constitution says school boards shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools

By: - July 30, 2021 2:59 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a campaign-style event in Cape Coral on July 30, 2021, that he will block schools from imposing mask mandates. Screenshot: Facebook Live

Update: Around 4:30 p.m., Gov. Ron DeSantis issued the executive order he had described earlier Friday. It threatens to withhold state-controlled funding from school districts that do not comply. The order calls for health and education rules for “controlling the spread of COVID-19 in schools” that maintain Floridians’ constitutional freedoms, maintain parents’ rights under state law to make health-care decisions for their children, and that “protect children with disabilities or health conditions who would be harmed by certain protocols such as face-masking requirements.” The order relies in part on language signed into law earlier this year in the new “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

Also Friday Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward Democrat and attorney, announced he will heartily defend the Broward County School Board’s decision Wednesday to require students, staff and visitors to wear face masks at school as a method of slowing transmission of COVID.

Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed Friday morning to let parents decide whether their children will wear face masks in schools, regardless whether local boards have made their own decisions on face coverings as COVID-19 surges and the new school year approaches.

At a festive, campaign-style event in Cape Coral that was billed as a press conference, DeSantis told cheering fans he will fight all COVID-related mandates and restrictions in schools and elsewhere, despite rising numbers of  infections attributed to the virulent and highly transmissible Delta variant.

“Very soon I’ll be signing an executive order which directs the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health to issue emergency rules protecting the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis did not provide details at the time about the forthcoming executive order, which certainly will come under close scrutiny in terms of the Florida Constitution’s provisions for local school board authority.

The event, held at a restaurant, appeared on DeSantis’ schedule as a press conference, but the scene was decorated like a campaign stop, with colored lights, balloons and campaign signs. News media were not evident, and DeSantis did not offer to take media questions.

The governor’s statements Friday follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  reinstating mask recommendations in highly infected areas. Even those fully-vaccinated would wear masks in indoor places such as in schools. That is because the Delta variant poses new challenges not seen with the original coronavirus, such as making younger people sick enough to require hospitalization and infecting even fully vaccinated people.

Currently, most Florida school districts have mask-optional policies in place, but DeSantis said that could change in light of the CDC and America Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.

The Florida Education Association, which sued DeSantis’ administration last summer when it ordered schools to reopen for in-person classes during the pre-vaccination period of the pandemic, issued a statement of disappointment in the governor’s remarks and called for protection of local control.

“In a state as large and diverse as Florida, decisions on health and safety will not come in one-size-fits-all solutions, and that is why it is important for the will of the people, as expressed by their locally elected officials, to determine decisions regarding health and safety in schools,” the FEA stated.

“We ask Gov. DeSantis to allow all Florida’s citizens to have a voice by empowering the elected leaders of cities, counties and school districts to make health and safety decisions locally based on their unique needs and circumstances,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in the statement.

The FEA lawsuit filed against DeSantis, Education Commissioner Corcoran and other parties scored victories in early court rulings suggesting the union’s constitutional challenge had merit. But ultimately, in December, the FEA voluntarily dismissed the suit. DeSantis said Friday that the union “lost” and predicted it would lose again if it challenges his order to let parents, not school boards, decide about face masks. As with the new executive order Friday, the order that prompted the FEA lawsuit threatened to withhold funds from school districts that did not resume on-site classes five days a week,  alongside the online classes they were offering.

On Tuesday, DeSantis hosted a roundtable discussion about wearing masks in schools that did not include public school teachers or news media.

“Our view is this should absolutely not be imposed, should not be mandated,” DeSantis said at the roundtable. “And I know our Legislature feels strongly about this. Such that, if we started to see push from the feds or some of these local school districts, I know that they’re interested in even a special session to be able to provide protections for parents and kids who want to breathe free.”

Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried is hosting daily briefings on the surge on COVID infections. Screenshot/Florida Channel

Florida Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried underscored the CDC’s new masking advice at her press conference later in the morning on COVID infections data. She said new cases per day are higher this week than in January, when vaccines were just beginning to be distributed.

Fried, who is challenging DeSantis in the 2022 governor’s race, said local school districts and local governments should decide which COVID restrictions if any to impose in their communities.

Despite pitching the slogan “Free To Choose,” DeSantis is preventing local elected officials from being free to set local policies, Fried said.

“Right now, our local governments are handcuffed,” Fried said, referring to the governor’s executive order that blocked enforcement of local COVID restrictions. “We need to let our local governments do what they do best.”

Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls issued statements in support of DeSantis’ announcement that he will ban mask mandates in public schools in order to let parents decide whether their students will or will not wear masks in school.

“I trust Florida parents to evaluate all of the information available and make the best decision about whether or not their children will be wearing a mask when they return to school next month,” Simpson said in his statement.

“We’ve come a long way since the start of this pandemic, when a disease we knew so little about threatened to overwhelm our health care infrastructure. We understand our situation so much more now than then, and with that understanding comes power and responsibility,” Sprowls stated.

Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Lauren Book said it is contradictory for DeSantis to defend freedom of choice while attempting to block local policy choices and even joining on Thursday a legal challenge to block reproductive freedom nationwide.

“The Governor’s continued decision-making through a hyper-partisan political agenda is reckless and duplicitous, because when it comes to women having the choice to make decisions about their healthcare, he blocks it. When it comes to businesses having the choice to protect people’s health through proof of vaccination, he blocks it,” Book said in a press statement.

“We also believe in science, and the numbers don’t lie: Data shows COVID-19 surging in our communities with hospitalizations of younger residents on the rise,” she continued. “With one in five COVID cases nationwide originating in the state of Florida, we urge the governor to stop grandstanding and start leading.”

Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferrulo and Florida Watch Executive Director Josh Weierbach also issued statements, accusing DeSantis of ignoring medical and scientific advice on COVID in order to advance his presidential aspirations among anti-vaccination, anti-mask, anti-lockdown voters.

“Florida’s hospitals are pushed to the brink, ICUs throughout the state are at their limits, and doctors and medical professionals are begging Governor Ron DeSantis for help,” said Ferrulo. “In Governor DeSantis’ mind, freedom means that you are on your own when it comes to combating the spread of this deadly disease.”

“There is no issue that Governor DeSantis won’t turn into a culture war issue to advance his own personal political ambitions at the expense of everyday Floridians,” Weierbach stated. “Instead of addressing the numerous actual crises facing our state, Governor DeSantis’ actions today are nothing more than political theater that puts politics ahead of public health.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.