DeSantis and school districts clash over masks as COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Florida

An executive order threatens to withhold funds from districts requiring masks.

August 6, 2021, 7:09 AM

Leanetta McNealy, who chairs the school board in Alachua County, Florida, has seen COVID-19 rock her district. In the span of several days, two employees died from the virus, over a dozen tested positive for it and more than 80 others were asked to quarantine, according to a statement from the district released Wednesday.

"This surge has certainly created a problem," McNealy told ABC News on Thursday. "We depend on our employees so much to help our system run smoothly."

The virus has so crippled the district that the school board voted unanimously Tuesday to require masks for students for the first two weeks of the school year, which begins Aug. 10.

Such a vote wouldn't normally draw attention -- since districts nationwide are requiring students to cover their faces, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- but it came just days after Gov. Ron DeSantis, long an opponent of stringent coronavirus measures, issued an executive order aimed at leaving mask decisions up to parents, handcuffing districts.

The order directs the state health and education departments to adopt rules protecting "parents' rights ... to make health care decisions for their minor children," and gives the education commissioner the green light to deny money to districts that don't comply.

McNealy fumed when she read the order. "I thought it was appalling and absurd that he would even suggest at this point that he would not want to have students masked," she said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis takes questions during a press conference at Tampa General Hospital on Aug. 5, 2021, in Tampa, Fla.
Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire via Newscom

The debate around mask requirements comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus wreaks havoc in Florida.

On Thursday, the Florida Hospital Association reported 12,500 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, marking a new pandemic high. According to the CDC, the state is now reporting 17,000 new cases per day.

DeSantis' executive order appeared to spook some districts, at least temporarily.

On Monday, the Broward County school district, which had previously voted to require masks for students, backtracked, saying in a statement that it "intends to comply with the Governor's latest Executive Order."

But on Wednesday, the county pivoted again, saying it would wait for "further guidance" before making a final decision on masks. In the meantime, it said, it would require students to wear face coverings.

In Duval County, home to Jacksonville, the school board stopped short of mandating masks, voting instead on Tuesday to have parents opt out their child if they do not want them wearing one.

The district, however, will not require parents to provide a reason for opting out.

"The Board's emergency policy decision Tuesday night creates the best balance between our deeply held responsibility for the safety and welfare of students and staff while fully respecting parental choice under the Governor's order," Duval County School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Anderson said in a statement provided to ABC News.

McNealy, meanwhile, is concerned about the threat to cut money from districts that require masks for students.

"That is a huge problem," she said. "To withhold funds would be very, very impactful."

Students and their families fill out paperwork at a back to school health clinic at Middleton High School in Tampa, Fla., on July 31, 2021.
Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire via Newscom

Legal experts, however, say districts that impose mask mandates are not in jeopardy of losing money, at least not yet.

"The executive order on its own doesn't actually do anything to school districts. It directs the Department of Health and Department of Education to write rules," Richard Briffault, an expert on state and local government who works at Columbia University, told ABC News.

"When those rules get produced, they will presumably put some limits on the ability of local school districts to require masking -- that certainly seems to be the idea," Briffault continued. "But the executive order itself just says, 'You guys should go off and write rules. And these rules should take into account the rights of Florida parents.' It doesn't even literally say that they have to ban masks."

Christina Pushaw, DeSantis' press secretary, acknowledged that the order lacks the power to prevent local mask mandates by itself, but she told ABC News that the state is finalizing rules to meet the recommendations of the order.

"We expect the rules to be finalized this week," Pushaw said.

"We expect every parent in the state to be able to choose" whether their child wears a mask in school, she added.

On Thursday, the Florida Department of Education announced that an emergency meeting will be held Friday to discuss a measure that would allow parents to transfer their child to another school district if their own district implements a mask mandate.

A description of the meeting on the Florida Department of State's website implied that such transfers would be permitted under the Hope Scholarship, a program that the Florida Department of Education's website says allows students "who have been bullied, harassed, assaulted, [and/or] threatened ... to transfer to another public school or enroll in an approved private school."

A representative with the department did not respond when asked by ABC News via email Thursday night whether it views a mask requirement as a form of bullying or assault.