DeSantis’ order: State may withhold funds if school districts make students wear masks
School districts in Broward and Gadsden counties have announced plans to mandate mask-wearing to control the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to stop them and any others that might follow their lead.
Gov. Ron DeSantis told Florida’s departments of education and health to protect parents’ right to decide whether their kids will wear masks in schools.
Standing behind a lectern with a sign reading “Free to Choose,” the governor announced Friday in Cape Coral his plan to issue an executive order instructing the departments of education and health to write rules protecting parents’ right to decide whether their children will mask up in schools.
The order was released late Friday afternoon, hours after his speech. It came after the Broward and Gadsden school systems decided recently to require that students wear masks when classes start next month. The order states that the state’s Board of Education can withhold funds from districts that don’t comply with laws or rules regarding the masking of students.
“The question is, shouldn’t this be something the parent is best to eval
uate?” DeSantis said, contending that maskwearing did not generate significantly different health outcomes in schools last year than in those that had no facialcovering rules.
Broward schools spokesperson Katherine Koch said the district had not seen the order. She said officials will review it and “consider what adjustments may be necessary to make to our face-covering policy.”
Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said in a written statement: “We are extremely disappointed that Gov. DeSantis is choosing not to follow CDC guidelines for a disease that is as transmissible as chicken pox and more transmissible than the flu or common cold. He advocated for people to get the vaccine. Why is he against masks? BTU will continue to advocate for mask wearing by staff and students while COVID numbers and hospitalizations are surging.”
After Wednesday’s Broward School Board meeting in which the mask mandate was approved, board Chair Rosalind Osgood told reporters that if DeSantis convened a special legislative session that resulted in a law banning mask mandates in public schools, Broward would comply.
“Once the governor implements that law, this school district will be responsible School Board members and follow the law,” Osgood said. “We talked about that as part of our discussion today.”
COVID CASES RISING
DeSantis’ announcement Friday came at a time of rising hospitalization rates associated with the coronavirus delta variant, and as public-health experts sound warnings that the new strain is more likely to infect children than the original virus.
The governor did not mention those trends. He based his direction on the recently approved Florida law that says the government will not infringe on parental “fundamental rights” regarding their children’s education and healthcare.
“We’re in a situation where we need to make sure the parents’ rights are protected,” DeSantis said.
Ron Meyer, one of Florida’s leading educationpolicy attorneys, questioned the governor’s authority to take such a step.
The state no longer is under a state of emergency, Meyer noted, meaning the local boards have the constitutional power to operate, control and supervise schools in their districts.
“I don’t know how Article IX of the Constitution could be more clear,” he said, suggesting the governor is creating an order
“out of thin air” to accomplish his political goals.
Meyer added that the governor’s definition of freedom of choice appeared situational. The state bans indoor smoking, for instance, he said, because of the effects that secondhand smoke has on non-smikers, he noted.
“How is this any different?” Meyer asked, referring to the use of masks to block germs from infecting others.
Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told WTVJ-NBC 6 in an interview Friday morning that he also had not yet read DeSantis’ executive order but regardless of the specifics, he’s wary of any
order or law that doesn’t take into consideration the unique needs of individual districts and communities.
“I believe that generalized pronouncements via executive order or state statute that basically don’t differentiate between conditions which may vary significantly from South Florida to Central Florida to the Panhandle, that don’t take into account how differently those conditions may be and the impacts that they may have, may not necessarily be in the best interest of our communities,” Carvalho said.
Miami-Dade starts school Aug. 23, which is later than most districts. Carvalho has maintained that the later start date could provide more time for the district to make a more informed decision on masks and other issues. He will meet with publichealth and medical advisers about two weeks before classes begin.
“And, regardless of whatever executive order or decision is made regarding these matters, we’re going to take our concerns, our findings and seek recommendations from those experts,” Carvalho said.
The Miami-Dade teachers union, United Teachers of Dade, reacted in a statement released Friday afternoon that accused DeSantis
of engaging in “culture wars that endanger the lives of Floridians.”
“We find ourselves at the intersection of The Twilight Zone and Groundhog’s Day as we are once again at the exact point we were a year ago today,” the union’s statement reads.
SPECIAL SESSION DOESN’T SEEM LIKELY
In recent days, DeSantis had hinted that he would call a special session of the Legislature about maskmandates in schools.
On Thursday, he had calls with House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson. But it’s not clear what exactly DeSantis discussed with the legislative leaders.
After Friday’s press event, Simpson and Sprowls issued statements backing DeSantis on his call for the new emergency rules. Their offices did not answer questions about whether the rules meant legislators would not be brought back for a special session.
“While there are some public officials who will seek to use the power of government to compel uniformity and adherence to their preferred course of conduct, that approach is not in keeping with Florida values,” Sprowls said in his statement. “Gov. DeSantis recognizes that parents are in the best position to make choices for their children. His actions today demonstrate his faith and trust in our fellow Floridians, and he — and they — have my full support.”
STATEWIDE EDUCATION LEADERS REACT
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said the governor and Legislature should respect local control on this issue.
“Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need. We reject that kind of thinking,” Spar said in a statement. “Instead, we ask Gov. DeSantis to allow all of Florida’s citizens to have a voice by empowering the elected leaders of cities, counties and school districts to make health and safety decisions locally based on their unique needs and circumstances.”
He called on the governor to lead in other areas where consensus might be achieved, such as placing more nurses and counselors in schools, and ensuring all campuses have air conditioning.
The Florida School Boards Association shared that perspective.
“Communities ought to have the space to be able to make decisions locally based on their local priorities at any given time,” Executive Director Andrea Messina said. “Our school districts are very diverse. They have diverse needs, and they have locally elected constitutional officers who are elected to make decisions for that local community.”