By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday he will issue an executive order to prohibit school districts from imposing mask-wearing requirements as students return to classes in August.
Scoffing at revised COVID-19 guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DeSantis questioned potential health effects of forcing students to wear masks for hours at a time and said parents should be allowed to decide whether their children use face coverings.
“If you have been listening to some of the murmurs going around, particularly in Washington lately, 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 during an event at Two Meatballs in the Kitchen restaurant in Cape Coral. “And I just want to say in Florida, there will be no lockdowns. There will be no school closures. No mandates in the state of Florida.”
The Broward County School Board on Wednesday decided students would be required to wear masks when they return to class, but most districts across the state aren’t expected to make similar decisions.
On Tuesday, the CDC recommended that teachers, students and school staff members wear masks, as Florida and other states are seeing major increases in COVID-19 because of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus. The federal government has not mandated masks in schools.
The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Thursday called for the “universal” use of masks in schools. Meanwhile, the state’s largest teachers union issued a statement Friday that supported local decision-making on health and safety issues.
“In a state as large and diverse as Florida, decisions on health and safety will not come in one-size-fits-all solutions, and that is why it is important for the will of the people, as expressed by their locally elected officials, to determine decisions regarding health and safety in schools,” the Florida Education Association said in a statement. “Unfortunately, through his words and actions, Gov. DeSantis has made clear he does not respect the freedom of locally elected officials to do what they feel is best for their communities.”
Similarly, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, who is seeking to unseat DeSantis in 2022, said local officials should have a say in mask decisions.
“The decisions about whether children should wear masks into school, or if you can have some virtual education, ought to be made on a local basis. Not necessarily Tallahassee down, but rather local districts up,” Crist, a congressman from St. Petersburg, told The News Service of Florida. “They know what their situation is, better than anybody.”
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, also running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2022, held a mid-day news conference at the Capitol and accused DeSantis of “pandering to that electorate that is anti-mask and anti-vax.”
“We need to be listening to scientists and to our medical doctors, not our politicians pandering to this pandemic,” Fried said.
In addition to announcing Friday that he will issue an executive order, DeSantis has suggested the possibility of calling a special legislative session to counter any moves by the federal government to require students to wear masks.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called DeSantis’ plan for an executive order a “decisive action” that has the speaker’s “full support.”
“We’ve come a long way since the start of this pandemic, when a disease we knew so little about threatened to overwhelm our health care infrastructure,” Sprowls said in a statement. “We understand our situation so much more now than then, and with that understanding comes power and responsibility. 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.”
In a separate statement, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said parents need to be involved when it comes to mask decisions.
“I trust Florida parents to evaluate all of the information available and make the best decision about whether or not their children will be wearing a mask when they return to school next month,” Simpson said.
Florida has been one of the hardest-hit areas of the country by the surge in COVID-19, accounting for about 20 percent of the cases nationally in recent days.
DeSantis appeared at the restaurant with several parents and teachers who questioned mask requirements and vaccines.
DeSantis said his order, which was not immediately released, will direct the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health to issue emergency rules protecting the rights of parents to make decisions about children wearing masks. He said the order will expand on a new state law that spells out a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” related to education and health care.
“I have young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the mask thing with the kids,” DeSantis said. “We never have. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”
— News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.