TALLAHASSEE — Some of Florida’s schools aren’t surrendering to Gov. Ron DeSantis just yet.
Schools in Florida’s second largest district will require all students to wear masks when classes begin next week in what is the boldest move a local board has taken yet against DeSantis’ unyielding opposition to face covering policies.
The move all but ensures that DeSantis’ fight over mask mandates amid a surge in infections won’t be resolved as millions of students across the state begin a new, in-person school year.
Broward’s school board voted 8-1 on Tuesday to keep its student mask mandate in place — one day after the state education commissioner threatened to dock the pay of local superintendents and board members who refuse to make face coverings optional. By not giving parents the choice to opt their children out of wearing masks, Broward is directly breaking emergency rules created by the DeSantis administration to prevent schools from enacting stricter Covid-19 safety measures.
The DeSantis administration has warned other school districts that are violating the new rules to make masks optional, or else face the “maximum” sanctions possible from the Florida Department of Education.
“I feel very disappointed and actually quite angry that the governor would continue to utilize his dictatorship-style of leadership to override local school boards when they disagree with his viewpoints,” Patricia Goode, a Broward County School Board member, said Tuesday.
Parents, health care professionals and Democrats have attacked DeSantis for weeks over his resistance to imposing Covid-related restrictions amid the spike in new infections. Yet the GOP governor, who is seeking a second term in 2022, has sought to block any lockdowns, mask requirements or vaccine passports from being implemented, going so far as to threaten to withhold funding for school districts or mount legal challenges. That stance has made him a nationally-revered figure among conservatives and has helped fuel speculation that he’ll mount a 2024 presidential run.
The state, however, continues to break Covid records. There are more than 15,000 coronavirus-related hospitalizations, and the state counted more than 134,000 new infections last week.
The board in Broward, representing the sixth largest school district in the nation, acted on its mask policy as many districts in Florida welcomed students back for their first day on Tuesday.
In most counties, masks are optional for students or they are permitted to opt-out of wearing the face coverings with a simple parent form. But school leaders in Alachua and Leon counties took that a step further by requiring students get permission from a medical professional before abandoning masks — policies that were disavowed by the DeSantis administration, which argues parents should have the ultimate say on masking.
DeSantis, whose priority is carrying out a “normal” school year, indicated on Tuesday that his administration is not backing down from blocking local school mask mandates, a stance that is also being challenged in court.
“We are going to do whatever we can to vindicate the rights of parents,” DeSantis said at an event in Surfside.
Broward’s school board for hours grappled with the possibility of losing state funding, namely the salaries of board members and the superintendent, before deciding to require masks when classes begin Aug. 18. Initially, Broward County was one of the first districts to push for mandatory masks, a decision that played a key role in nudging DeSantis to take action against face coverings.
School leaders in other districts, including Miami-Dade County, are considering similar moves at the risk of resisting DeSantis and his education commissioner, who are maintaining a hard line against local mask policies.
Board members and superintendents say that defying DeSantis is worth the risk if the safety measures will help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in schools.
“I guess I’ll go back to my community and we’ll set up a GoFundMe, or somebody will get me a job at McDonald’s somewhere,” said Rosalind Osgood, Broward’s school board chair. “But I’ll be able to have a moral conscience and know I didn’t put somebody’s life at risk.”
Not long after she made her comments, state Senate Democrats announced that they’re launching a GoFundMe effort to repay salaries to education officials who lost income over mask rules.
Parents on both sides of the mask argument appeared at Broward’s board meeting in force, attempting to sway the board to make face coverings optional and mandatory.
Some told the board that they are prepared to cash in on the state’s offer for a “Covid-19 harassment” voucher that clears the way for a student to attend a private school or switch counties over opposing masks.
“Let’s pull the money out of the county,” said parent Jenna Hague. “Because that seems to be the only way go get anybody’s attention.”
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Education has threatened to come down hard on Alachua and Leon counties for pushing stricter health guidelines than required by state agencies, a consequence that is likely to hit Broward next.
In identical letters to school leaders, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran pledged to launch immediate investigations into their non-compliance with the state’s emergency rules that prohibit mask mandates. Corcoran could recommend that the Board of Education withhold state funds equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all score board members, he wrote.
“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.
DeSantis’ strong opposition to blanket mask policies has come under increased criticism from President Joe Biden, Democrats and health care professionals.
On Thursday, the Biden administration continued to hound on DeSantis’ about mask mandates as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki indicated the federal government could intervene.
“We are continuing to look for ways for the U.S. government to support districts and schools as they try to follow the science, do the right thing and save lives,” Psaki said at a Tuesday briefing.