The school district where Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his mask mandate ban maintains its own requirement follows the law.
A week ago, the Department of Education sent a letter to Lee County Schools announcing an investigation into officials going against DeSantis’ executive order. But school districts say their own requirement, which only allows parents to opt children out with a medical release, went into effect after a court rejected DeSantis’ rule.
“In that decision, the court found that Executive Order 21-175 was null, void, unconstitutional and unenforceable. Judge (John) Cooper also ruled that per the Parents’ Bill of Rights statute, school districts could enact policies regarding health care and education that are necessary and reasonable to achieve a compelling state interest so long as it is narrowly tailored,” a letter from the district to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran reads.
The letter, signed by School Board Chair Debbie Jordan and acting Superintendent Kenneth Savage, went out the same day Lee Health announced deaths for COVID-19 patients in the local hospital system had surpassed 1,000.
Lee County has often found itself in the middle of news about the pandemic. The first fatality from the disease in Florida was a Lee County woman who died at Gulf Coast Medical Center on March 5, 2020.
Regarding the mask mandate, DeSantis in July announced his order forbidding school districts from mandating masks this school year. After the Board of Education said any district violating that order would be effectively violating the law, the School Board demurred and put in place a mandate with a no-questions-asked opt-out for parents.
But after Judge Cooper ruled in favor of parents who said the rule compromised the health of their children, Savage announced a short-term mandate allowing students to opt out only if they documented a medical reason.
In the letter to the state, school officials cited both a high positivity rate for testing in the county and a jump in cases among students.
“Lee Health issued a COVID-19 update on August 24, 2021, where Dr. Larry Antonucci, President and CEO of Lee Health Systems, the largest health care system in our area, stated that they are seeing an increase in the number of children with COVID-19. Dr. Antonucci stated that Golisano Children’s hospital emergency department saw 265 patients the day prior, which is more than double what they would normally see, and of those patients 135 had COVID-19 symptoms.”
As of Tuesday, 14 children with COVID-19 were being treated as inpatients at Golisano, the pediatric hospital within the Lee Health network.
“Since the start of the pandemic we have had instructional and support staff be hospitalized and die of COVID-19 complications. Many staff are afraid and many have also quit their positions, including approximately 20 bus drivers, due to a lack of masking requirement,” the letter from the district states.
“We also have children hospitalized as a result of the delta variant. Many parents have voiced tremendous fear over the risks to their children who are unable to be vaccinated. We have received thousands of emails pleading for the safest learning environment possible to protect children with autoimmune conditions, those recovering from cancer, and those with medically compromised loved ones in the family unit.”