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DeSantis, Defiant Districts Square Off Over Mandatory Student Masking

Three green face masks
Mika Baumeister
Three green face masks

Gov. Ron DeSantis says school districts that choose mask mandates could see their school board and superintendent’s salaries cut. The move is the latest salvo in an escalating fight over whether students should have to wear masks amid rising coronavirus infections.

Leon School Superintendent Rocky Hanna became the latest to defy Governor Ron DeSantis. Hanna says students in grades Pre-K through 8th will have to wear masks for the first month of school.

“Sometimes we may agree to disagree but lets do it in a respectful manner," Hanna said during a press conference announcing the move." We all want what’s best, we do. I just think this is the wise decision on what’s going on here in Tallahassee and Leon County with the numbers we’re seeing.”

He described the issue as an "emotional" one for him.

Previously, Hanna backed DeSantis’ approach to mask wearing—saying students and their families should decide that for themselves. But he later backtracked after the number of pediatric COVID-19 infections began to rise. More than two dozen of the city’s pediatricians signed on to a letter urging Hanna to put a mask mandate in place. Leon’s decision echoes that of at least four other districts. Hillsboro, Alachua and Broward and Duval are all mandating students wear masks for a time.

Gov. DeSantis has warned defiant districts that their superintendent and school board salaries could be cut. When asked Tuesday during a press conference in South Florida whether that’s still an option, DeSantis deflected, saying parents should have ultimate decision-making authority on the issue.

“I know you have a couple district’s who’ve done stuff recently. But at the end of the day, giving parents that option…you’re free to recommend, you can encourage whatever you want. I just don’t think you can override the rights and decisions of parents," the governor said.

Through an executive order, DeSantis made student masking optional, and the State Board of Education, which oversees public schools, recently issued an emergency rule allowing parents to transfer their kids to other public or private schools using vouchers if they’re children are harassed or bullied over masks.

There are questions about whether that executive order, and the board’s emergency rule making, are valid. State education Board member Ben Gibson is in DeSantis' corner.

“I’ve seen reports that we don’t have the authority to do this. I think the rule is narrowly tailored, it aligns to the statute that created the HOPE scholarship. And the board has absolute authority to define harassment further, which we’ve done," Gibson said, noting the state board has the power to withhold funding from districts that defy the rules.

Hanna says any move to withhold funding from school districts would hurt children.

Meanwhile, a legal battle over masking is brewing. According To Bloomberg News, a group of parents have filed suit over DeSantis’ executive order in Leon County Court, and WLRN Public Media reports a second mask lawsuit has been filed in South Florida.

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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