(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) — Risking financial consequences from the state of Florida, the superintendent of Leon County Schools refused Monday to allow parents to opt their children out of the district-wide mask mandate.
The decision directly defies an emergency rule issued Friday by the Florida Department of Health, which mandates that school districts requiring masks for students let parents opt out without providing a reason.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, in an executive order issued on July 30, gave the state education commissioner the green light to deny money to districts that don’t comply with rules to protect “parents’ rights … to make health care decisions for their minor children.”
Some of Florida’s largest school districts, seemingly spooked by the threat of losing money, are allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates .
Superintendent Rocky Hanna, however, is forcing the state’s hand.
He cited the need to keep students safe, as Florida reports increased numbers of infections of COVID-19 and hospital admissions in children.
The state has the highest number of confirmed pediatric hospitalizations from the virus, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“If something happened and things went sideways for us this week and next week as we started school, and heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor of the state. I can’t,” Hanna said.
He added, “If there’s an out and I didn’t take the out, and I didn’t do what was best for the children here in Tallahassee and Leon County, that’s on me.”
Parents in Leon County can submit a physician-signed form citing a medical need for their child to forgo a mask at school. They can also transfer their child to another school district via the Hope Scholarship, a program designed to protect bullied students which now, thanks to a new state rule, shields students from “COVID-19 harassment,” like mask mandates.
DeSantis’ office implied in a statement following Hannah’s announcement that any funding consequences would not affect students.
Instead, according to DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw, “The State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law.”
On Monday, Alachua County, home to Gainesville, confirmed that the district will also deny parents the chance to opt their children out of mask mandates without a medical reason.
“We want the same thing the governor wants. We want kids in their classrooms,” Jackie Johnson, the county’s communications director, told ABC News.
“The issue is we’ve got such a dramatic increase in the number of employees testing positive or having to be quarantined because of COVID. We certainly run the risk, if that trend isn’t reversed, of not having enough people to run our school safely,” she continued.
In a statement issued last week, Carlee Simon, the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, said two employees of the district had died of the virus within days of each other.
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