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Leon's Hanna On First Day Of School: 'Today Was A Good Day'

Man in a dark suit stands at a podium.
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The buses ran on time Wednesday morning—despite a driver shortage. And teachers showed up for work—though there are fewer of them. So far two teachers and four students, all from Chiles High School, have COVID-19.

“Today was honestly the best day I’ve had in several months," said embattled Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

Hanna was looking forward to a return to normal and there was optimism in the spring and early summer that the pandemic was beginning to fade. But vaccination rates stalled out and the Delta variant emerged. Now, cases are surging across Florida and elsewhere. Children now account for 11% of all COVID-19 cases in the country, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The increase in pediatric Covid-19 cases changed the game for Hanna. He went from endorsing a voluntary mask policy, to creating a mandatory one—and defying Governor Ron DeSantis in the process. Now, the superintendent of Florida’s capital county finds himself under fire from the governor, and the state Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, who wrote a letter to the district notifying Hanna and the school board that they’re under investigation for violating an executive order barring districts from requiring kids to mask up.

“I felt intimidated, I did not expect someone to be so forceful in correspondence when we were trying to navigate what’s safe for our children to reenter school this year," Hanna said of his reaction to Corcoran's letter. "I was disappointed they went straight to the issue of taking money from schools…and when they realized it wasn’t playing well in the community, they pivoted to school board and superintendent salaries. At the end of the day the salary, to me, is not the issue. It’s about protecting children. You cannot put a price tag on a child’s life, you just can’t.”  

There’s talk that the consequences of defying DeSantis could go as far as removal from office—a possibility Hanna said led him to revise the district’s mask policy, allowing parents to opt out of it. Previously, the opt out required a physician or psychiatrist's approval.

"This governor has shown before he’s willing to remove people from office for cause…and I just fear if we do things he’s not happy with or the commissioner is not happy with-- he could take that same action against me and school board members. And I don’t do anyone in that job if I’m not in that seat."

Especially, said Hanna, if he’s replaced by someone who doesn’t share his passion for public schools. Still, the district isn’t backing down from its mask policy—extending it to ALL grade levels now. Previously it only applied to grades Kindergarten through 8th. And so far, Hanna, over the objection of some families, some friends, and the governor—has stood his ground.

“A lot of parents—I don’t understand it. All this ‘I have the freedom, I have the freedom.’ Yes, but all the science and medical experts say—the masks not only protect yourself, they protect the people around you. And in my opinion—your rights end when they infringe on someone else’s right. The child sitting next to your child also has the right to a safe learning environment.”   

The mask battle has put a spotlight on the superintendent, who has lived in Tallahassee all his life, and started his career in education as a teacher at Godby High School in 1989. Back then, he made about $15,000 a year. Today’s teachers are starting at over 42,000—a jump Hanna gives the governor credit for.

It used to be, says Hanna, that career fairs for teaching jobs drew hundreds of people, “and now you roll those doors up, and there’s very few.” 

The district, like others, is facing a teacher shortage. There’s also a shortage of bus drivers and Substitutes. The pandemic has driven many people out of education. But the problems started long before COVID.

“A lot of the responsibilities of teachers has changed…it encompasses a lot more than just reading, writing and arithmetic—and there’s so many other things our teachers are responsible for, which may then lead to some of the frustrations they have about the profession in general. But the vast majority of our teachers are rock stars… [and] today was a good day.” 

Hanna says his dad named him “Rocky” for a reason. And he’s not backing down without a fight.