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Students arrive at school wearing face masks in Tampa, Florida.

Students return to school at Seminole Heights Elementary School on August 31, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order barring public schools from mandating masks as the school year begins, but several districts are defying the order. (Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Despite Funding Threat, Florida Schools Defy DeSantis's Ban on Mask Mandates

"I'd rather them come after our money than we're putting people in [funeral homes]," said one school board chair.

Julia Conley

Forced to make a choice between keeping schools fully funded and protecting children and educators, at least four school districts in Florida plan to defy Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis's order blocking mask mandates as the school year begins, citing the spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant.

After initially saying on Monday that Broward County Public Schools would comply with DeSantis's order, officials in the state's second-largest district announced on Wednesday that they will keep the district's mask mandate in accordance with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance. 

"Now that students are required to return to school in person, prohibiting mask mandates is an action of the state that affirmatively puts them in danger."
—Bacardi Jackson, SPLC

DeSantis's order directs state officials to "protect parents' right to make decisions regarding masking of their children" and says his administration will "pursue all legal means available to ensure school districts adhere to Florida law, including but not limited to withholding state funds from noncompliant school boards."
The governor's order came days after the CDC recommended universal masking in K-12 schools for students, teachers, staff, and visitors regardless of vaccination status, citing research that showed vaccinated people may be able to spread the virus as easily as unvaccinated people. 
DeSantis flouted the CDC guidance even as Florida became the epicenter of the United States' current outbreak, which is being driven by the Delta variant. One in five new Covid-19 cases are currently in the state. About 59% of Florida residents are fully vaccinated, and 95% of hospitalizations are currently among unvaccinated people. According to data (pdf) released late last month by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association, 9.1% of cases in Florida are currently among children. 
"At this time, the District's face covering policy, which requires the use of masks in District schools and facilities, remains in place," Broward County school officials said in a statement on Wednesday. 
Officials in Leon, Duval, and Alachua Counties have also moved to defy DeSantis's order, with Leon County Public Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna writing to the governor and asking him to implement a temporary mask mandate for students up to eighth grade, noting that four students in the district have been hospitalized and two teachers are in intensive care.
DeSantis, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, has consistently fought against public health measures, barring "vaccine passports" that mandate vaccination for participation in certain activities in public and lifting all Covid-19 restrictions in May. 
A high school teacher in Leon County denounced DeSantis in an essay at Slate on Wednesday, accusing the governor of being "focused much more on his reelection campaign and on his inevitable campaign for president...than he is on keeping the teachers and students and really the community in Florida safe."

"The fact that we were able to achieve the creation of this vaccine—a very effective vaccine in the time frame that we did—has been absolutely amazing," the essay reads. "It just blows my mind that we can receive such a great opportunity and then, as a society, fail to take advantage of it and cause hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. The scientific community really stepped up and has done amazing things during this pandemic to try and help people keep people safe, and we ended up seeing politicians just trying to counteract and fight against that at every turn."

School board members in Alachua County voted on Tuesday night to keep a school mask mandate in place for at least the first two weeks of school, potentially risking a portion of its $141 million in state funds. 
"[Education Commissioner Richard] Corcoran and his team—they will come after our money," Leanetta McNealy, the county's school board chair, told Politico. "I'd rather them come after our money than we're putting people in [funeral homes]."
Amid the news that school districts are flouting DeSantis's order, state education officials are planning to meet on Friday to discuss a proposal that would allow families to use private school vouchers to transfer their children out of schools that mandate mask-wearing. 
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) accused the governor of using the pandemic to further his "relentless efforts to privatize education and destroy public schools," while endangering the lives of children and teachers.
"Now that students are required to return to school in person, prohibiting mask mandates is an action of the state that affirmatively puts them in danger and shows deliberate indifference to the excessive risks to their health and safety," said Bacardi Jackson, managing attorney of the SPLC's children's rights practice.
"It is another example of DeSantis’ dictatorial propensities that ignore the requirements of the Constitution and usurp the authority of local elected officials and policymakers to do what is in the best interests of their constituents," Jackson added.

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