Florida school superintendents who require masks for students without giving them a way to opt out could have their salaries withheld, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office said Monday.
DeSantis last week barred local school districts from requiring students to wear masks amid a rise in cases, but at least one Florida school district said they will be mandatory when classes begin Wednesday.
School is resuming in Florida in a surge of Covid-19 cases fueled by the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.
The superintendent of schools for Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, the state capital, said Monday that masks would be temporarily required for all students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents will be able to opt out for medical or psychological reasons, but not for political ones.
“If something happened and things went sideways for us this week and next week as we started school, and heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus — I can’t just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida,” Superintendent Rocky Hanna said.
DeSantis, a Republican who has resisted Covid-19 restrictions, including mask mandates, issued an executive order Friday barring school districts from requiring students to wear masks. His office said Monday that districts with mask rules that allow parents to opt out for any reason would not violate the rules.
Hanna said the requirement would not be waived in Leon County schools for issues like personal freedom concerns or politics, at least for now. If things improve by Labor Day, people could opt out for other reasons. He said the district has to err on the side of caution to keep children safe.
DeSantis’ office said the State Board of Education would “narrowly tailor any financial consequences,” citing salaries as an example.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all students in kindergarten through 12th grade wear face coverings when they return to classrooms regardless of vaccination status, citing the spread of the delta variant. Children younger than 12 are not eligible for the vaccines.
The state’s largest school district, Miami-Dade County, has not decided on masks, but its superintendent said Monday that threats about salary would not play any role in policymaking.
The district, which has its first day of school Aug. 23, has a process that involves consultation with medical and public health experts, Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said.
“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck, a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” Carvalho said.
Florida reported its highest number of daily Covid-19 cases to the CDC on Friday: 23,903 cases.
Some other states have also banned schools from mandating masks or have tried to.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order in May barring school districts from requiring masks, as well as other government entities.
The Dallas Independent School District said Monday that it is requiring masks for all students, workers and visitors.
The district says on its website that “Gov. Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students. Dallas ISD remains committed to the safety of our students and staff.”
Another district in Texas, Austin ISD, will also require masks at all district properties.
Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said at a board of trustees meeting Monday that she’s responsible for the safety of students and staff. “If I err, I must err on the side of ensuring that we have been overly cautious, not that we have fallen short,” she said.
The number of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. since the pandemic began crossed 36 million Monday, according to an NBC News count of reports. More than 620,000 people have died.