Gov. DeSantis outlaws mask mandate in Broward schools

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Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order Friday that strikes down a mask mandate imposed this week by Broward schools, the only district in the state to require them.

The order states that “a right of a normal education is imperative to the growth and development of our children and adolescents.” It gives parents the right to ignore any COVID-19 mask mandates in schools.

Richard Corcoran, commissioner of education, is granted “all legal means available” to ensure compliance, including withholding state funds.

The Broward School Board passed the mask mandate Wednesday due to new federal guidance and rising COVID-19 rates. But board members say they’re unlikely to challenge DeSantis’ new rule.

“If we are not legally allowed to mandate masks, then we will have to change our policy,” said School Board member Debbi Hixon. “I am not looking to defy the governor. I believe it is an irresponsible decision, but if it is the law, I will agree to follow it.”

Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood agreed that the school district would comply.

“Broward County School Board will act responsibly and follow the law,” she said. “We will still strongly encourage staff and students to get vaccinated and wear masks in an abundance of caution.”

The School Board had first planned to make a decision on the issue Tuesday, but the meeting got postponed a day after about 30 mask opponents crowded the lobby and refused to put on masks.

School Board members say they were merely following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Association of Pediatrics, which recommended mask use in schools. The CDC’s recommendation, which came Tuesday, was a reversal from its earlier guidance that those vaccinated didn’t need masks.

Although most of the public speakers at a meeting Wednesday opposed a mandate, about two-thirds of about 100 written comments supported masks.

“I’ve heard overwhelmingly from parents, students and educators throughout Broward County thanking the board for continuing our masking policy,” board member Sarah Leonardi said. “It is within the governor’s power to override that policy, and if he chooses to do so he will disappoint a lot of constituents and I believe we will see cases in and out of schools continue to increase.”

But the CDC guidance “lacks a well-grounded scientific justification,” the governor’s order said. It maintains that a Brown University study analyzing COVID-19 data for Florida schools found no correlation between mask mandates and prevalence of the virus.

At the same time, the order makes health claims about masks that aren’t supported by most medical professionals, such as that masks could “inhibit breathing, lead to the collection of dangerous impurities including bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other contaminants.”

The American Academy of Pediatricians said masks are needed because most school-aged children aren’t vaccinated and those under 12 aren’t even eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Every child has a right to learn in a safe environment, and every parent has a right to send their child to a safe school,” said state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat from Lake Worth Beach who is running to replace the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.

“The governor isn’t protecting their rights. He’s attacking parents and students,” Hardy said.

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said DeSantis’ action disappointed her.

“He advocated for the vaccine. Why is he against masks?” she asked. “BTU will continue to advocate for mask wearing by staff and students while COVID numbers and hospitalizations are surging..”

Palm Beach County’s Classroom Teachers Association didn’t take a position on masks but sees the governor’s action as an overreach, President Justin Katz said.

“Whether you are for or against masking, decisions should be made by democratically elected and constitutionally empowered local officials,” Katz said in a statement. “Not by a governor usurping home rule and local authority.”

Palm Beach County Schools announced in May that masks would be voluntary this fall. Superintendent Michael Burke was reviewing the recent CDC guidance to determine whether to require them again, but that’s likely moot with the governor’s action, School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri said.

Barbieri said he’s asked the district’s legal staff to ensure the governor’s action is binding.

Miami-Dade County Schools had planned to ask a task force of medical advisers to review the issue due to the surge of cases and federal guidance. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said that the review is still planned to happen about two weeks before the new school year starts.

“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.

Raymond Adderly, the student government representative to the Broward School Board, tweeted to DeSantis, “Students don’t want to die in Broward.”

In an interview, Adderly, a senior at Fort Lauderdale High, said, “No one likes wearing masks. But they don’t complain because they understand it keeps them safe.”

But Adderly’s classmate Sarah Herman, a junior at Fort Lauderdale High, supports DeSantis’ decision. She prefers not to wear a mask and says she has lost friends because the issue has become so contentious.

“I am not saying masks should not be worn, your body, your choice,” she said in a text. “But I do think we should have the option to choose whether we have to wear them or not, since the masks have proved to be more than just a physical barricade for kids like me, who have been emotionally impacted too.”

During a speech in Cape Coral Friday, DeSantis said — to repeated applause from the crowd — that he would not change his COVID policies despite the skyrocketing number of cases and hospitalizations in the state and nationwide due to the rising prevalence of the much more infectious delta variant.

“If you listen to some of the stuff that’s being percolated around the CDC, there’s a movement to try to impose more restrictions on the American people,” DeSantis said. “And I just want to say in Florida, there will be no lockdowns. There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions or mandates in the state of Florida.”

Florida’s new daily COVID case count hit a high on Wednesday not seen since the post-holiday surge in January, with 17,589 new cases. More than 7,000 people have been hospitalized with the virus in the last week, and 1,500 more are suspected COVID hospital admissions, according to a White House report released Monday.

The state has seen a 1,780% increase in new cases in the past month.

DeSantis’s announcement comes one day after his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said Broward Schools’ decision “will be addressed.”

But at the same time, Pushaw said mask guidance from Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, and even Miami-Dade County’s mask order for county buildings, could be seen as acceptable as long as there were no restrictions on businesses or penalties.

A new law that went into effect on July 1 gives the governor the power to overrule local mandates and restrictions.

But DeSantis had already drawn a hard line when it came to school mask mandates, going as far as to threaten to bring the Legislature back for a special session if the federal government mandated it.

“I have young kids,” DeSantis said. “My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids. We never have. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”

Florida Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Friday that he supported the governor’s emergency rule.

“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 a statement. “Governor 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.

DeSantis added: “If a parent really feels that this is something that’s important for their kid, we’re not stopping that. They absolutely have every right to equip their students with whatever types of mask that they want, and have them go to school, if they believe that that’s a protection that’s important for their children. I think that’s the fairest way to do it.”

He also said he believed the CDC’s data on the dangers of the Delta variant was faulty and “we have to use common sense.”

He added that the media cover COVID “in a way to create the most angst in the population.”

“If it’s a mild or asymptomatic case, that’s not something to get spun up about,” he said.

Orlando Sentinel writer Steven Lemongello contributed to this report.

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