School started yesterday here in Miami-Dade County with the school board requiring masks for students and staff in defiance of Gov. DeSantis’s executive order.
More than 350,000 students started the new year in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, one of eight districts that have imposed mask mandates — against an explicit order by DeSantis to let parents decide on masking — as covid rates have skyrocketed in the state.
Pediatric cases are sharply rising, too, across Florida, with as much as one-quarter of the new cases being reported in people under 19 and hospitalization rates of young people rising as well.
DeSantis is moving ahead to punish districts that have mask mandates, first targeting those in Alachua and Broward counties because they were the first to require masks.
On Friday, state officials demanded they drop the mandates or school board members who supported the mask requirements would lose their pay. On Monday, they demanded at least one of the districts provide compensation information for those board members so they can start withholding their pay. The Florida Board of Education planned an emergency meeting to grill the superintendents of a few other districts that imposed mask mandates.
And he’s spending money defending it in court.
A nationally watched court battle over masks began in Florida on Monday with parents from across the state arguing that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration should not have prevented schools from implementing universal mask mandates.
The trial in Leon County court has the attention of the White House, other states and local school district officials, many of whom are still wrangling with the question of mandatory masks as coronavirus cases and quarantines rise in schools.
At its core, the case pits personal liberty versus collective responsibility. It also could address some major questions: How much power do the governor and Legislature have over local schools? Did DeSantis’ emergency order address a real emergency? And how useful are masks?
Michael Abel, representing the governor and the education department, opened by acknowledging that everyone involved wants the best for children. “We don’t fault or criticize the plaintiffs’ families for the action they are taking,” Abel said.
But masking children, Abel said, is far from a settled issue. He said the governor made a policy decision to protect the freedom of parents to make health choices for their children.
The plaintiffs, including parents from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Alachua and Palm Beach counties, argued mask mandates are “vitally important” to keep their children safe. Kristen Thompson, a Gainesville parent of three, said her first-grade daughter, 7, has medical “complexities” that do not allow her to wear masks.
“We need other people wearing masks so she doesn’t get the germs coming to her,” said Thompson, who also testified she has heard other parents say they will send their kids to school sick.
“That makes me scared,” she said. “If people are wearing masks it protects from everyone else who is not being responsible.”
The court dispute is underway as a growing number of Florida school districts impose mask mandates, and as the Biden administration threatens possible legal action against governors who block local school officials from requiring masks to protect against the coronavirus.
For the record, Florida leads the nation in the number of people in hospitals with Covid-19.