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Florida’s battle over school mask mandates has reached the governor’s doorstep after education leaders in the state capital, Tallahassee, became the latest to defy Ron DeSantis’s ban.
Rocky Hanna, superintendent of the Leon county school district, announced on Sunday that masks would be required to be worn by students in pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, beginning on Monday. Only medical exemptions will be allowed.
The district’s reversal of its previous stance, which complied with DeSantis’s requirement to allow parents to opt out, comes after Leon county recorded hundreds of new cases of Covid-19 in the first week of the new school year.
“It’s time to make a change,” Hanna said in a video recorded in an empty classroom at Gilchrist elementary school.
“We have been in school for just seven days and have recorded over 245 positive cases, which is nearly one-third the total we had for all of last year.”
Hanna’s decision, communicated to parents and staff by Facebook on Sunday, means at least seven Florida school districts are now in open defiance of DeSantis’s executive order banning mask mandates. The governor, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, has portrayed the ban as a protection of individual freedoms.
School districts at odds with the governor include Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties, all among the top 10 US school districts by size and accounting for more than a million students.
The school board of Orange county, the state’s fourth-largest with more than 200,000 students in Orlando and its suburbs, was also expected to announce it would require students and staff to wear masks, after meeting lawyers on Monday.
Hanna said he had written to DeSantis the week before school started, asking for local leaders to be allowed to make “the best decisions for our community and the children here in Leon county”.
In response, he said, he received “a very harsh and threatening letter” from Florida’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, stating that Hanna and school board members could face penalties for violating state law.
Last week, Corcoran ordered Broward and Alachua school districts to comply with DeSantis’s order within 48 hours or face the withholding of funds equivalent to the salaries of the superintendent and school board members.
Florida continues to lead the US as a coronavirus hotspot, with 46,571 new cases in two days. Tens of thousands of students across the state are quarantined or isolated at home following cases in schools.
In a statement to WCTV, DeSantis’s communications director, Christina Pushaw, said: “It is disappointing that Leon Schools would violate Florida law by reversing its mask policy, which had previously protected parents’ rights and complied with state law by offering an opt-out provision.
“Governor DeSantis stands for parents’ rights, makes data-driven decisions, and follows the science.”