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DeSantis Issues Executive Order Banning Mandatory Masks In Schools

Rows of empty desks in a classroom.
Thomas Favre-Bulle
flickr.com/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

To mask or not to mask? Gov. Ron DeSantis says that’s a personal choice and he's signed an executive order to ensure it stays that way. The question is one parents, teachers and students are grappling with as they prepare to head back to school next month.

The issue is again coming to a head amid rising cases of the highly-transmissible Delta Variant of the coronavirus.

“It’s crazy, because, there were weeks we had no cases and it was like an entire party. And you felt like you could see the end in sight," said Florida A&M University administrator Rica Calhoun, reflecting on a largely COVID-free summer with few cases at the school.

Those happy feelings didn’t last long. COVID-19 infections are again rising and while FAMU isn’t requiring students to wear masks indoors, it’s following the State University System Board of Governors' guidance in strongly recommending them, along with keeping the school’s COVID-19 quarantine dorms open.

The prospect of outbreaks in a new school year has quickly become a flashpoint again.

“I just could not in good conscious put masks back on 5,6,7-year-olds," said Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna. Leon is one of a majority of districts that's electing to keep a mask-optional policy in place.

"I saw the look of despair in their eyes last year. We’ve seen this virus have little impact on school-age children," Hanna said.

In South Florida’s Broward County, the situation is different. The school board earlier this week opted to mandate mask-wearing in schools, though board member Donna Korn worried the move would run afoul of DeSantis, who has opposed such mandates.

“I am not looking for us to get ourselves in trouble over this mask issue," Korn said.

Despite that intention, Broward did cross the governor, who announced Friday a new executive order banning mask mandates in schools.

“Floridians have been, are and will remain free to choose what’s best for their families….and our kids to attend school in person," DeSantis told supporters in a press conference touting the new Parental Rights law.

New guidance from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccinated and non-vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors. The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending children wear face coverings in schools since many are still too young to vaccinated. Andrew Spar, head of the statewide teachers union, says DeSantis’ executive order is concerning.

“School boards who are locally elected and listen to parents, teachers and staff, the health experts—are unable now to make decisions they feel are best to keep kids healthy and safe," he said.

Spar is calling on teachers to get vaccinated to protect themselves.

The situation is changing daily. Florida went from a mid-June weekly low of about 10,500 new infections to more than 73,000 weekly cases as of July 16th.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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