TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — At a news conference in Surfside, Gov. Ron DeSantis doubled down on his commitment to putting student masking efforts in the hands of parents, not school districts, on Florida’s first day of school as the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to breed uncertainty.

After presenting members of Florida search and rescue teams who responded to the Surfside tragedy with their $1,000 bonus checks, DeSantis took a few questions from reporters.

Turning to COVID-19 and school mask mandates, the governor remained steadfast on his claims that masking at schools over the past year had no clear tie to case number increases or decreases, and said he would rather leave the decision to parents instead of school districts.

“We knew that in-person schooling was a low-risk environment, and the kids, fortunately, were very low-risk. So we had a school year, in-person,” DeSantis said. “Man, just think about how much worse we’d be off had we not had kids in school.”

The governor said the consequences of keeping children out of school during the pandemic would have long-term ramifications and pointed to low, working class, middle-income students as those most affected.

“A lot of the wealthier families, some of these politicians want to close schools, and then they send their kids to private school in-person, which is just crazy,” DeSantis said.

Citing pediatric case numbers, DeSantis provided some statistics about hospitalizations during the current rash of delta variant cases.

“Here’s what I can tell ya,” DeSantis said. “If you look throughout the entire pandemic, between 1.1 and 1.4% of COVID-positive patients in Florida hospitals have been pediatrics. Right now it’s 1.3%. So you’ve not seen a change in the proportion of the young people who’ve ended up being admitted.”

The governor also said it’s important to understand that when COVID-positive patients in hospitals are mentioned, it includes anyone who has tested positive, whether they’re being treated for COVID or test positive when coming to the hospital for other procedures or appointments.

The governor did not provide a source for that distinction. He only said that when you go into a hospital for a procedure, you’ll be tested for COVID-19. However, he did state that the majority of COVID-positive cases in hospitals are there for treatment of the virus.

“They test everyone who walks in,” DeSantis said. He said about 25% of patients in Florida are COVID-positive but not being treated for the virus, while in pediatrics it’s between 25-40%. The governor also mentioned a wave of pediatric respiratory synctial virus (RSV).

Turning to the conflict on mask mandates in school districts, DeSantis said it’s ultimately up to parents.

“We think that this is something that intimately affects the health and wellbeing of young kids,” DeSantis said. “We had a whole year to watch how this has developed in Florida and throughout the United States and the world.”

While DeSantis said there is no statistical evidence of a correlation between forced masking and case numbers, and cited a study by Emily Oster at Brown University, he said parents are telling him how difficult the pandemic and mask rules have been on their kids. He said the National Institute of Health has not yet spent “a single penny” of their $42 billion budget on how the mitigation efforts are affecting the mental health of young children. Still, he said it’s up to parents, not the state, and not the schools.

“It’s a parent’s decision. If you believe in the masking during school, you’re free to do it, no one’s saying you can’t do it. But if you’re somebody who’s concerned about that, who thinks that may not be the right thing for your child, I think you should have the right to make that ultimate decision,” DeSantis said. “I don’t think the government should be able to override that. So for me, it’s about the parents and trying to vindicate parents’ ability to make these decisions.”

The governor said it’s essentially about parental choice and not government mandates. Calling the virus “aerosolized,” asking if “a piece of cloth is going to stop it” and questioning if kindergarteners and other young kids are really keeping their masks on, throwing doubt on the efficacy of mask mandates and enforcement for younger children.

“But I can tell ya, kindergarteners? Everyone admits that whatever efficacy a mask would have, you have to wear it fitted, properly and tight,” DeSantis said. “Do you honestly think that these young kids are doing that?”

When asked about the potential to withhold funding from schools over mask mandates, DeSantis said that the state will do whatever it can to vindicate the rights of parents about the health, education, and welfare of their kids and should not be decreed by the government, and remain in the parents’ control, admitting that some parents have different views on masking.

“There’s different parents that feel differently about it. To force one way is alienating and marginalizing a lot of parents throughout the state of Florida. And I think we want to be supporting that, so, we’ll do what we can to vindicate those rights,” DeSantis said. “But, ultimately I think what you’ll see is, I think most of the school districts have not had, most of the mask policies have expired, I know you’ve had a couple districts that have done stuff recently, but at the end of the day, giving a parent that option, you’re free to recommend, you can encourage whatever you want, but I just don’t think you can override the rights and the decisions of the parents.”