Risking financial consequences from the state of Florida, two school district superintendents are refusing to allow parents to opt their children out of district-wide mask mandates without a medical reason.
Doing so directly defies an emergency rule issued Friday by the Florida Department of Health, which mandates that parents be allowed to stop their children from wearing masks in the classroom.
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 .
But superintendents Rocky Hanna and Carlee Simon, of Leon and Alachua Counties, are forcing the state’s hand.
In a press conference Monday, Hanna 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 of K-8 students 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 Hanna’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.”
Simon, whose district is home to Gainesville, confirmed that she will also deny parents the chance to opt their children out of mask mandates without a medical reason.
“I’m going to listen to the experts and let them guide this, and I think that’s what we need to do. The safety and the security and the quality of instructional hours are what matters right now,” Simon told ABC News. “I know it appears I’m being combative and I don’t want to be combative, but this is the responsibility I have in this position.”
Asked whether she fears losing some of her salary as punishment, Simon said, “I’d be interested in the legal argument of how that could occur.”
COVID-19 has rocked Alachua County Public Schools: In the last two weeks, two employees have died, 32 have tested positive and 85 more have had to quarantine. Seven students have also tested positive, said Simon.