TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order Friday that effectively bans school systems from establishing mask mandates in response to rising COVID-19 cases.
In a press conference Friday, DeSantis said his order would have the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health create rules that would leave mask-wearing up to a parent’s decision.
The order itself states the departments will now make the rules to keep COVID-19 protocols from violating constitutional freedoms, parents’ right to make health care decisions for their children, and protect children with disabilities from being harmed by mask mandates.
“I think that this decision about whether parents want their kids to have to wear masks all day at school, I think that’s a decision that falls squarely within the concord of this Parents’ Bill of Rights that I signed,” DeSantis said in Cape Coral.
However, the governor’s order also gives the commissioner of education full authority to keep schools in line, including taking away state funding that violate the order.
This comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its guidance on masks earlier this week, saying that people need to start wearing masks indoors again in some parts of the U.S., even if they’re vaccinated.
DeSantis said forcing students to wear masks would harm children, but so far, most school systems in Florida are going to keep masks optional for families.
Regarding his executive order, the governor cited the Parents’ Bill of Rights he signed last month, saying a parent’s decision to have their child be mask-less should be protected from government interference.
“My wife and I are not going to do the masks with the kids; we never have,” DeSantis said. “I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”
He also said leaving the decision to the parents would be consistent with the data he had seen showing no difference on masks’ impact on the spread in school.
However, the Florida Education Association released a statement challenging DeSantis’ decision, saying he should allow local authorities to make the decision on masks. The FEA said Desantis is not respecting the freedom of local officials to what is best for their particular communities based on input from their constituents and COVID-19 data.
“Whether it is mandating a pay plan that requires teachers with 15 years of experience to be paid the same as a first-year teacher or telling locally elected officials they cannot enforce recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Gov. DeSantis continues to think that Tallahassee knows best what all Floridians need,” FEA President Andrew Spar said. “We reject that kind of thinking. Instead, we ask Gov. DeSantis to allow all Florida’s citizens to have a voice by empowering the elected leaders of cities, counties and school districts to make health and safety decisions locally based on their unique needs and circumstances.”
Instead, the FEA said DeSantis should be focusing on making sure schools have nurses on staff, an adequate number of counselors for students, and helping use funds to fix structural issues in schools.
Meanwhile, several parents and teachers at the conference said that forcing masks negatively impacted the children.
“The masking that still took place was enough to negatively affect my kids,” one mother said, describing how her child had issues making friends and began having communication and behavioral issues.
“Sam (her daughter) hit her bottom last year when we had to seek outside help to learn how to handle her stress and anxiety,” the mother added. “She’s 8.”
DeSantis said the CDC needs to look at the negative impacts that children could face from forced mask-wearing.
“One of the things that’s so frustrating about this whole experience is some of the people that are advocating for mitigation measures, mandates and stuff, they never acknowledge the harms that come with that,” he said.