DeSantis, school districts clash over masks as COVID-19 cases soar in Florida


Leanetta McNealy, who chairs the Alachua County School Board in Florida, has seen COVID-19 rock her district. Within days, two employees died from the virus, more than a dozen have tested positive and more than 80 others have been asked to self-quarantine, according to a district statement released Wednesday.

“This increase has certainly created a problem,” McNealy told ABC News Thursday. “We depend so much on our people to keep our system running smoothly. “

The virus has crippled the district so much that the school board voted unanimously on Tuesday to require masks for students for the first two weeks of the school year, which begins Aug. 10.

Such a vote wouldn’t normally attract attention – since districts across the country require students to cover their faces, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – but it came just days after Gov. Ron DeSantis, long an opponent of strict coronavirus measures, issued an executive order to leave decisions about masks to parents, handcuffing districts.

The ordinance directs the state health and education departments to adopt rules protecting “the rights of parents …

McNealy fumed as she read the order. “I thought it was appalling and absurd that he even suggested at this point that he didn’t want the students to be masked,” she said.

The debate over mask requirements comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus wreaks havoc in Florida.

The Florida Hospital Association reported on Thursday that 12,500 patients have been hospitalized with COVID-19, marking a new pandemic record. According to the CDC, the state is now reporting 17,000 new cases per day.

DeSantis’ decree seemed to frighten some districts, at least temporarily.

On Monday, the Broward County School District, which previously voted to require masks for students, backed down, saying in a statement it “intends to comply with the governor’s latest decree.”

But on Wednesday, the county pivoted again, saying it would wait for “new directions” before making a final decision on the masks. In the meantime, he said, students should wear face covers.

In Duval County, where Jacksonville is located, the school board did not make masks mandatory, voting instead on Tuesday for parents to remove their child if they do not want them to wear one.

The district, however, will not require parents to provide a reason for opting out.

“The board’s emergency policy decision on Tuesday night strikes the best balance between our deep responsibility for the safety and well-being of students and staff while fully respecting parental choice under the Governor’s Order.” Elizabeth Anderson, president of the Duval County School Board, said in a statement. ABC News.

McNealy, meanwhile, is worried about the threat of cutting money from districts that require masks for students.

“It’s a huge problem,” she said. “Withholding funds would be very, very impactful.”

Legal experts, however, say districts that impose mask warrants are unlikely to lose money, at least not yet.

“The decree itself does nothing to school districts. It orders the Department of Health and the Department of Education to write rules,” Richard Briffault, a state and local government expert who works at Columbia University. New.

“When these rules are produced, they will likely put limits on the ability of local school districts to require masking – that certainly seems to be the idea,” Briffault continued. “But the decree itself simply says, ‘You should go and write rules. And these rules should take into account the rights of parents in Florida. “He doesn’t even literally say they have to ban masks.”

Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, admitted that the order did not have the power to prevent local mask warrants on their own, but told ABC News the state was in the process of finalizing the rules to respond to the recommendations of the order.

“We expect the rules to be finalized this week,” Pushaw said.

“We expect every parent in the state to be able to choose” whether their child wears a mask at school, she added.

On Thursday, the Florida Department of Education announced that an emergency meeting will be held Friday to discuss a measure that would allow parents to transfer their child to another school district if their own district implements a mask warrant.

A description of the meeting on the Florida Department of State website implied that such transfers would be permitted under the Hope Scholarship, a program that the Florida Department of Education website says allows students “who have been intimidated, harassed, assaulted, [and/or] threatened (…) to move to another public school or to enroll in an approved private school. “

A representative for the department did not respond when ABC News asked him by email Thursday night whether he viewed the mask requirement as a form of intimidation or assault.

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