Leon County Schools will require students in prekindergarten through eighth grade to wear masks when classes begin Wednesday, defying state rules against mask mandates.
Superintendent Rocky Hanna requested last week that Gov. Ron DeSantis loosen his executive order against mask requirements to allow a mask mandate for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. However, the DeSantis administration doubled down Friday with emergency rules that would make school vouchers available for children to transfer to schools with different mask requirements.
Leon County Schools’ mask mandate will come with an opt-out, but only for children who have a physician or psychologist’s note saying the child has a health condition and there’s a health reason to not wear a mask. Parents will have until the end of the week to get a waiver signed.
Hanna said he hopes to reevaluate the mask requirement before Labor Day and lift it after the holiday.
The mask mandate issue arose amid the surge of COVID-19 delta variant cases in recent weeks that, unlike previous waves, have hit children harder.
Before the recent wave, Hanna supported DeSantis’ initial decision to make masks optional in schools. But last week, when he announced that school employees would wear masks, Hanna said several school-age children in Leon County were hospitalized. And over the weekend, he spoke with Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare’s director of pediatrics, Dr. Tom Truman, who he said called a mask mandate the “prudent thing to do.”
“If something happened and things went sideways for us this week and next week because we started school, and heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the Governor of the state of Florida. I can’t,” Hanna said. “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.”
Hanna frames his opposition to the Governor’s mask-optional mandate as an issue of local discretion, akin to DeSantis’ opposition to federal pandemic rules. Hanna’s initial announcement last week followed President Joe Biden‘s Tuesday press conference in which he ridiculed DeSantis and called on community leaders in the public and private sector across the country to enforce masking.
However, the DeSantis administration says Leon County Schools’ rules violate the Governor’s executive order.
“All parents deserve the freedom to choose whether to opt out their own child. This should not be contingent on their ability to procure a doctor’s note. These policies violate the spirit of the EO,” spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said.
The Superintendent noted that masks have become an emotional and political topic. And despite the difficult decision, he said he was making it out of an abundance of caution.
“I would just ask, no matter where you’re lined up and sided, for all of us just to take a deep breath, to realize what’s most important is getting our children safely back in school on Wednesday,” Hanna said.
DeSantis issued an executive order late last month amid rising COVID-19 and delta variant cases. Florida has seen record-breaking hospitalizations and case loads since then, but DeSantis and the administration stand firm in their threat to cut funding for school boards that require masks for students.
The Department of Educations rules surrounding school vouchers would let students obtain Hope Scholarships, typically used to protect students from bullying and harassment, to avoid “COVID-19 harassment.” Parents could transfer their children away from public schools with mask policies they find detrimental into private schools with policies that match their beliefs.
Hanna didn’t appear to take issue with parents using vouchers to take their children out of the school district if parents personally object to wearing masks. School districts would lose funding because of the drop in enrolled students.
However, the option still remains that the state could further punish school boards for requiring masks. Those other avenues, such as withholding the salary of the district superintendent or school board members who violate state rules, would be narrowly tailored to only impact officials who violated the rules, according to Pushaw.
Hanna responded to that threat during a school board agenda Monday afternoon.
“You can’t put a price tag on someone’s life, including my salary,” Hanna said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat’s Ana Goñi-Lessan.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a candidate for Governor and Florida’s lone statewide-elected Democrat, praised Hanna, saying he “made the right decision and is going to stand up for our kids, regardless of political retribution.”