TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed to reject mask mandates for school-age students on Friday, saying he will soon issue an order allowing parents or guardians to choose whether their child wears a mask in schools.
The Republican governor, who threatened to call a special session on masks in schools, will “very soon” sign the emergency action, which is in response to the Broward County School District making masks mandatory for students and teachers in the face of the coronavirus Delta variant spreading throughout the state. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth-largest school district in the country, will make a decision on mask mandates in the coming days.
“As of today, very few [school districts] are requiring it. Nevertheless, we have a lot of push from the CDC and others to make every single person, kids and staff have to wear masks all day,” DeSantis said during the event. “That would be a huge mistake.”
The governor did not offer any timing about signing the order, but said it would direct his Department of Education and Department of Health to craft emergency rules giving parents the right to choose whether their kid wears a mask, which has been an issue amplified by DeSantis in recent weeks. Many schools in Florida are set to resume in-person learning in the coming weeks.
The governor’s moves come as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued new guidance on masks in schools, saying that all K-12 students should wear face coverings inside schools regardless of vaccine status. It also furthers the governor’s hands-off approach to the pandemic and follows his pledges to reject any school closures, lockdowns or Covid-mandates.
Florida is currently seeing a surge in coronavirus infections, reporting 17,589 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, the state’s highest mark since January. Florida is now one of the worst-hit states in the nation and makes up one in five new infections nationally.
DeSantis’ decision to use the administration’s administrative authority to overrule school boards that require masks comes amid open chatter of a special legislative session, which DeSantis said he would call if the Biden administration or local districts imposed mask mandates for schools. DeSantis wanted a special session, but got pushback from legislative leaders, who quickly praised DeSantis’ announcement.
“Governor DeSantis recognizes that parents are in the best position to make choices for their children,” said state House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) in a statement released after the DeSantis event. “His actions today demonstrate his faith and trust in our fellow Floridians, and he — and they — have my full support.”
In his own statement, state Senate President Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) said he was “grateful to Governor DeSantis” for the announcement.
But the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, criticized DeSantis’ mask move as overreach against local school boards.
“Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need,” FEA President Andrew Spar said in a statement.
We reject that kind of thinking,” Spar said. “Instead, 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.”
DeSantis could also face some opposition in Miami-Dade County, where Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the school district will seek Covid-19 recommendations from local health experts “regardless” of any executive order. The district is consulting with its health team two weeks before classes are slated to begin on Aug. 23, Carvalho said in remarks Friday.
“I believe that generalized pronouncements, via executive order or state statute that basically don’t differentiate between conditions, which may vary significantly from south Florida to central Florida to the panhandle, … may not necessarily be in the best interest of our communities,” Carvalho said.
DeSantis’ sweeping action comes a mere two days after local leaders in Broward County, one of the largest school districts in Florida and the nation, unanimously voted to make masks mandatory for children and adults districtwide.
The Broward County school board said Friday it will review DeSantis’ order after he issues it and then consider next moves.
Most school districts are prepared to begin the semester with masks as an optional precaution, but the Delta variant has pushed some counties to rethink their Covid-19 policies.
“If a parent really feels that this is something that’s important for their kid, we’re not stopping that,” DeSantis said Friday.
“I think that’s the fairest way to do it — to let the parents have the decision.”