Another Florida school district will require masks, bucking DeSantis's orders

Leon County Schools, home to the capital city of Tallahassee, is set to become another school district in Florida to institute a mask mandate for students that doesn’t give parents the choice to opt out, bucking an order from Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisDeSantis pledges to sue Biden administration over vaccine mandates We have a presidential leadership crisis — and it's only going to get worse Biden touts progress but warns US in 'critical period' as millions remain unvaccinated MORE (R).

Rocky Hanna, superintendent for Leon County Schools, announced Sunday in a video on Facebook that the district will require masks for students from pre-K to eighth grade starting Monday.

“I am aware that I am the first elected school superintendent to take such action. I am also aware, fully aware, of the consequences I may suffer,” he said.

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“Governor, I do have an obligation to uphold the laws of the state of Florida,” he added in a direct message to DeSantis. “I have a greater obligation, however, to protect for the health, safety and welfare of the children in Tallahassee and Leon County.”

Initially, Hanna said he had written to DeSantis's office a week before students returned to class earlier this month to ask for more “flexibility” in the governor’s order that allows parents to opt their children out of being required to wear face coverings in schools.

“Local hospitalizations during the first week of August started to increase, and some of our children were beginning to fall ill from the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus,” he said. 

Hanna said he wanted more leeway to temporarily require masks for “students ages 5 to 11 in our elementary schools and our middle schools,” calling them the “most vulnerable because they're not yet eligible to become vaccinated.”

But Hanna said he never received a response. Two days before school was set to start, he announced the district would require masks with a medical exemption option.

That same day, Hanna said he “received a very harsh and threatening letter” from Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran saying the new policy violated state law and that if the district moved forward, Hanna and “members of the Leon County school board would be held in violation and face the maximum penalties under the law.” 

As a result, Hanna said he and the board decided to open school with K-12 mask policy that included the medical exemption but also an “individual freedoms opt-out for parents who claimed the wearing of masks were an infringement of their parental rights.” 

However, Hanna said he and school officials agreed they would be “very stern in monitoring” infections and would consult legal counsel for options if they felt they needed to make further changes to the mask policy.

Hanna said the district ended up making an about-face on the policy Sunday after recording more than 245 positive cases in the seven days students have been in school, which he said amounted to nearly a “third of the total we had from all of last year.” 

“I am a total favor of individual rights and freedoms and the rights of parents; however, I strongly believe that my rights end when they infringe on the rights of others,” he said. “It has also been well documented by the vast majority of health care experts that these masks not only protect the person wearing the mask; more importantly, they protect the child beside them, and to me, your rights end when that child's rights are infringed on.” 

Hanna asked DeSantis to reconsider his position on masks in schools and to “give local control back to school districts to do what's best for the children in our community ... just as you fight to protect the sovereignty of the state of Florida.”

“We are simply asking you to have that same consideration for us. Leaders should never allow pride or politics to cloud their better judgment,” he added.

In a statement to The Hill, a spokeswoman for DeSantis’s office, Christina Pushaw, called the district’s decision “disappointing” and a clear violation of state law.

Pushaw accused the school board and superintendent of being “focused on playing politics instead of doing their research — and doing the right thing for kids and families.”

“Governor DeSantis stands for parents’ rights, makes data-driven decisions, and follows the science,” she said. “There is no empirical evidence to support the assertion that the benefits of forced masking of schoolchildren outweigh the potential harms.”

“Nobody is above the law, not even school board politicians,” she continued, with the added warning: “If local officials overstep and infringe on individual rights, intervening to protect individual rights is indeed a legitimate use of state executive power.”

The move by Hanna came days after Florida's Board of Education warned two other school districts that they could lose funding if they fail to comply with DeSantis's orders.

--Updated on August 25 at 8:12 a.m.