Employees in Leon County Schools will be required to wear masks when doors open to students next week despite a state order banning mask mandates.
Superintendent Rocky Hanna issued the announcement Wednesday, one week ahead of the first day of school in Leon County. That followed a letter he sent Tuesday to Gov. Ron DeSantis in which he asked the Governor for “autonomy, flexibility and local control” to allow school districts to implement mask requirement for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Without word from the Governor by the end of the week, Hanna said the school district will have to make a decision “one way or another” before classes start.
“Job one is always to protect our children, and now we see our children are having adverse impact to the delta variant, and it’s our job to stand up for them,” Hanna said.
The new rules in Leon County mark a change from as recently as last week, when the School Board backed its mask-optional policy despite community outcry.
Hanna said he supported DeSantis’ initial decision to make masks optional in schools, before the recent wave. But now, the positivity rate in Leon County is in double digits, and he said several school-aged children have been hospitalized, “a game-changer” for Hanna.
DeSantis continues to cite studies showing students are less likely to transmit COVID-19 or have severe symptoms.
“I’ve now obviously changed course because the data reflects a change of course, not simply because I’ve dug in with pride or politics when all other things get involved,” Hanna said. “I’m not a prideful person to where I can admit that I was wrong and we need to turn course and do what’s right, and that’s to protect our children, our employees.”
In June, DeSantis said he wanted schools to end their mask requirements for the 2021-22 school year. On Friday, DeSantis issued an executive order banning school mask mandates for students. The order also threatens to cut funding for noncompliant school boards.
Hanna called that threat disappointing. With the school district possibly moving forward with a PreK-8 mask order, Hanna said the School Board will “cross that bridge when we come to it,” referring to possible funding cuts to districts that defy DeSantis’ order.
Beginning Monday, the mask requirement will apply to school employees when they are indoors and within six feet of students. Lecturing for hours with a mask is difficult, Hanna added.
Mask requirements have become “politicized and emotional,” he continued.
“You think it’s tough for me? I’m kind of protected out here in never never land where these folks are on the frontline day in and day out with our community, with their parents and with their students, and it’s my job to support them and give them the resources and the things they need,” Hanna said.
Leon County Schools’ change of course comes after Duval County schools moved to an opt-out policy for masking and Alachua County schools required masks outright.
DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, on Tuesday urged that any “mask mandate” couldn’t be enforced because of state policy.
“Even if a school board passes a ‘mask mandate,’ they will not be able to enforce it, because the choice will be up to parents whether their children wear masks or not,” Pushaw said when asked about Duval, noting the matter is one of rulemaking between the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Education at this point.
That rulemaking, she said, would require optionality, seemingly without mandates or “opt outs” from implied rules.
“Some parents will choose to mask their children,” Pushaw said, while others will “follow the science and data that shows masking can have serious adverse effects, with limited data demonstrating any benefits in the school setting.”
Hanna’s change also comes after a press conference President Joe Biden held Tuesday afternoon in which he derided DeSantis and called on community leaders in the public and private sector across the country to enforce masks.
“If some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it,” Biden said. “I say to these governors, please help. If you’re not going to help, at least get out of the way of people who are trying to do the right thing.”