LEON COUNTY, Fla. - The school superintendent in Florida’s capital city announced Sunday that masks will be required for students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, becoming the seventh district to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis ban on such COVID-19 mandates.
Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna said the district has seen positive tests for the coronavirus skyrocket since school opened Aug. 11 in Tallahassee and its immediate suburbs. He said parents who don’t want their elementary or middle school student to wear a mask will need to get a signed note from their child’s physician or psychologist by Friday.
Leon, which has 32,000 students, had planned to open the school year with such a mandate, but backed down after DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said districts could only impose a mask mandate if parents can opt out their children on their own. They have threatened to cut funding from districts that impose stricter mandates and impose sanctions against their elected officials.
Hanna said he is "in total favor of individual rights and freedom and the rights of parents," but that does not include the right to endanger the health of others.
"I don’t believe that masks are necessarily the end-all, be-all, but we know they make a difference. The vast majority of health care experts tell us they make a difference," Hanna said in a statement broadcast on Facebook.
High school students are exempt because they are old enough to be vaccinated.
The other districts that have imposed strict mask mandates are Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Alachua and Sarasota. All but Sarasota are Democratic strongholds and DeSantis, a Republican, has accused them of playing politics. Democrats have accused DeSantis of the same, saying he is using his anti-mask mandate position to build a national profile for a possible 2024 presidential bid.
The governor’s press office did not immediately respond to an email and phone call Sunday seeking comment. DeSantis said last week that districts that impose mask mandates are violating a law the Legislature passed this year and he signed that says it is up to parents to decide whether their child should be masked and schools cannot force them. He said he, Corcoran and the state board of education are just enforcing the law.
A three-day court hearing is set to begin Monday on a lawsuit challenging DeSantis’ interpretation of that law and whether the Florida constitution gives the state the right to overrule districts on health matters.
"Forcing young kids to wear masks all day, these kindergartners, having the government to force them, that’s not defying me, that is defying the State of Florida’s laws," DeSantis said. "This is not something we are making up. This is what the state law says. These emergency orders implement the law that the Legislature passed and I can tell you there are a lot of members of the Legislature who say, ‘Wait a minute – you are just above the law? You think you can do whatever you want?’ That’s not the way it is."
Hanna said he understands that unlike the school board-appointed superintendents in the other six districts that have instituted strict mask mandates, as an elected official DeSantis could suspend him. He said he is willing to take that risk and called on DeSantis to allow local officials to make decisions that they believe are best for their communities.
"Governor, just as you fight to protect the sovereignty of the state of Florida, we are simply asking that you have that same consideration for us," Hanna said.
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