Leon County Schools will require masks for students up to eighth grade, defying Florida’s school masking rules.
Earlier this month, district Superintendent Rocky Hanna issued an order requiring masks for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. However, Hanna and the School Board reversed that decision the next day after Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote a letter warning the order violated state law. Along with the letter came a threat to withhold district administrators’ paychecks for violating the state’s law allowing parents to opt their children out of mask requirements.
Beginning next week, parents will need a physician or a licensed psychologist to sign a form opting their children out from the mandate, as Hanna had originally ordered Aug. 9. Hanna announced on Sunday the return to that policy.
Leon County Schools has had 245 positive COVID-19 cases so far this school year, already one-third of last year’s total. The daily testing positivity rate hit the mid-40s, up from the previous record of 19%. Additionally, 900 students were in quarantine at the end of last week.
“The numbers speak for themselves. It’s time to make a change,” Hanna said. “The goal is to keep our schools open. However, if we continue down this path, I’m afraid we may have to look at other options, and the last thing we want to do is to close our schools.”
The State Board of Education last week ruled that Alachua and Broward county school districts were violating state law with their mask mandates. State Board Chair Tom Grady suggested suspending district administrators that violate state law, a follow up to the DeSantis administration’s threats to withhold the pay of offending administrators.
Leon County Schools’ revised position comes after President Joe Biden ordered U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to take additional steps to protect children in schools, even pursuing legal action to curb mask mandate bans if necessary.
Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Sarasota county school districts have joined Alachua and Broward in flouting the state mask mandate ban. Sarasota County is the first country won by former President Donald Trump to violate the state’s law.
Hanna noted the legal risks district officials faced by violating the law.
“Governor, I do have an obligation to uphold the laws of the state of Florida. I have a greater obligation, however, to protect the health, safety and welfare of the children in Tallahassee and Leon County,” Hanna said.
After Corcoran wrote his letter to Hanna earlier this month, the School District altered its masking rules to allow parents to opt out for any reason. It also expanded mask requirements through 12th grade.
The latest mandate does not apply to high schoolers.
Children younger than 12 aren’t eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. As a result, Hanna said children are the county’s “most vulnerable” population.
Masks aren’t the “end-all-be-all,” he continued, but noted that the vast majority of experts say wearing masks reduces the spread of COVID-19. Hanna called that common sense.
DeSantis ties his mandate prohibition 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.
Hanna said he was in favor of individual rights and the rights of parents.
“However, I strongly believe that my rights end when they infringe on the rights of others,” he said.