Hours before classrooms opened Wednesday in Leon County, the district reversed course on its mask mandate and allowed parents to opt out.
Superintendent Rocky Hanna on Monday announced a mask mandate for prekindergarten through eighth grade that allowed parents to opt their children out of the mandate with a doctor’s signature. But after Hanna received a letter from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatening to withhold school district administrators’ paychecks, the district moved forward with a parental opt-out without requiring a doctor’s note and extended the mask requirements to 12th grade.
However, the Board members discussed the possibility of taking legal action at a later date after discussing their options with lawyers.
“The goal is to get school open tomorrow morning and position ourselves if we need to take action in the future,” Hanna said during a Tuesday evening School Board meeting.
The Department of Health on Friday issued rules requiring schools to let parents opt out from mask requirements, as described in Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ prohibition on school mask mandates late last month. On Monday, the Governor’s Office threatened to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who violate state law.
Hanna received praise from Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried for defying the DeSantis administration. And Hanna appeared to call the Governor’s bluff during a Monday meeting in which he said, “You can’t put a price tag on someone’s life, including my salary.”
But Corcoran sent Hanna a letter expressing his “grave concern” over the school district’s rules. Violating the administration’s rules would result in sanctions, including withholding funds, Corcoran said.
“There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children,” Corcoran wrote.
Hanna told the School Board he believed the initial order complied with the administration’s rules by allowing parents to seek a doctor’s signature. However, with Corcoran’s letter, he feared the state could potentially remove him or School Board members from office and DeSantis could install appointees who would follow the administration.
With the short notice before classes started Wednesday, Hanna said the School Board had been “boxed in.”
“My goal is to position ourselves to remove the authority and to gain control without a doubt of us getting removed from office,” Hanna said. “Once we have that authority, if we see things have changed, then we enact that authority.”
DeSantis issued his executive order late last month amid rising COVID-19 and delta variant cases. Florida has seen record-breaking hospitalizations and case loads since then, and cases have appeared to hit children harder than they did previously, but DeSantis and the administration stand firm in their threat to cut funding for school boards that require masks for students.
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.
Leon County School Board Vice Chair Darryl Jones called DeSantis and his administration’s actions an “undue exercise of executive authority.”
“Our children are being impacted by this disease far differently than they were a year ago, when the entire district was masked, when we were separated as a district, half at home and half at school. Now everybody comes back and now we talk about a mask option?” Jones said. “And here in the throes of a pandemic (talking) about the preferences of children setting policy in the throes of a pandemic where people are dying or hospitalized is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”
DeSantis ties his order to the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which he signed into law in June. That law provides parents freedom from the state and public schools in how they raise their children — extending to decisions about education, health care and mental health.
But Hanna disputed that wearing masks is an issue of parental rights. The majority of experts say wearing a mask helps prevent a person from infecting others, he noted.
“The choice doesn’t simply affect your child, from what we’ve been told,” Hanna said.