Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he will sign an executive order to issue emergency rules for "protecting the rights of parents," making face masks optional across the state in schools and leaving it up to parents.
The governor made the announcement Friday in Cape Coral at an Italian restaurant, where he also presented parents who oppose masks.
The order, released later Friday afternoon and made "effective immediately," directs the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Health to issue emergency rules to allow parents to make the decision for their children to wear masks in schools.
It says, among other things, that Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran "shall pursue all legal means available to ensure school districts adhere to Florida law, including ... withholding state funds from noncompliant school boards...."
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Recently revised CDC guidelines, however, say all people in K-12 schools should wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
DeSantis' move won't ban masks outright; he made clear that students whose parents want them to wear masks should be free to do so.
"We think that's the most fair way to do it," DeSantis said, adding that he doesn't make his own three small children wear masks — and joking they wouldn't wear them correctly for long anyway if they did.
DeSantis had recently said he might call lawmakers into special session if local school districts enact mask mandates of students.
In May, he signed an executive order lifting all local COVID restrictions. A month later, he signed into law a bill that permanently prohibits local governments from issuing any new COVID restrictions.
DeSantis also has said he won't re-enact a state of emergency despite Florida leading the nation with 20% of all new COVID-19 infections — a spike largely driven by the delta variant.
At least one Democratic lawmaker immediately criticized his Friday announcement.
"Our Governor continues to prioritize his own political agenda over the health and well being of Floridians by going after masks," tweeted state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.
"Meanwhile homelessness and poverty are legitimate issues he could be focused on. But NOPE, let’s keep on w/the culture wars & endanger lives."
The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, issued a lengthy statement decrying the order.
“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 ... 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.”
Meantime, Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, issued a statement "applaud(ing)" DeSantis "for his decisive action."
"While there are some public officials who will seek to use the power of government to compel uniformity and adherence to their preferred course of conduct, that approach is not in keeping with Florida values," he said.
"Gov. DeSantis recognizes that parents are in the best position to make choices for their children. His actions today demonstrate his faith and trust in our fellow Floridians, and he – and they – have my full support.”
Added Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, in a separate statement: “I trust Florida parents to evaluate all of the information available and make the best decision about whether their children will be wearing a mask when they return to school next month.”
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Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida Gov. DeSantis signs order making masks in schools optional