Two Florida counties back off from school mask mandates

TALLAHASSEE — School leaders in Lee and Volusia counties this week reversed course on mandating masks for students and will allow them to opt out of wearing face coverings, falling in line with rules from the DeSantis administration after facing pressure from state officials and parents.

These school districts are the first to back off from student mask mandates since an appeals court last week expressed serious doubts about a high-profile lawsuit challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis over his Covid-19 response. That leaves some 11 school districts, enrolling more than 1.5 million students, defying DeSantis and state agencies by requiring students to wear masks regardless of parental choice.

“I am an executive. My job is to enforce the law,” Ken Savage, interim superintendent of Lee County school district, said during a Covid-19 update on Wednesday. “I am not a politician. I cannot make the law — I’m not empowered to do that. I have to follow the law.”

Lee and Volusia were two of the five GOP-leaning counties where the local school boards passed mask mandates in defiance of DeSantis, moves met with intense scrutiny from parents and community members who are against the measures. Many school districts across the state have been plagued by dozens or even hundreds of Covid-19 cases and quarantines during the first weeks of the school year, pushing them to require masks at the behest of the DeSantis administration.

In reaction to the First District Court of Appeals decision to reinstate the state’s ban on mandates, Lee County chose to drop its school mask requirement on Tuesday, Savage wrote in a letter to parents.

Savage noted that the school district has experienced 92 classroom closures this year and urged parents to support wearing masks regardless of policy.

“While I am bound to follow the law, I will not stop pushing for every safety mechanism, specifically while we’re in this surge,” Savage said Wednesday.

Shortly after the court decision came down on Friday, state Rep. Spencer Roach (R-North Fort Myers) prodded Savage to drop Lee County’s illegal mask mandate — a sign of the heat school leaders are getting this fall. The Florida Department of Education is withholding the monthly salaries of school board members in Alachua and Broward counties, the first sanctions levied by the state against defiant districts during the ongoing mask fight.

Roach warned Savage that he would put in a formal request to DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to terminate the superintendent’s employment if Lee County kept its mask mandate. It’s unclear what authority Roach or state lawmakers would have to remove an appointed schools superintendent.

“Parents — not the government — have the sole authority to make health care decisions for their children,” Roach wrote in a letter to Savage.

Across the state in Volusia County, the local school board voted 3-2 on Tuesday night to carve a parent opt-out into its mask mandate, as sought by the DeSantis administration. Their stricter mask policies lasted about one week and received a firestorm of criticism from residents.

The DeSantis administration is under investigation by the Biden administration and fending off numerous legal challenges over its masking policies, yet the Republican governor remains confident schools in Florida are on the right path after heavy Covid-19 case loads early in the fall semester.

Covid-19 cases among children younger than 12 years-old declined by 27 percent over the last week, from 23,557 to 17,165 cases, according to the latest Department of Health data from the week ending Sept. 9.

“The case is going to resolve itself, in our favor I think in the First District Court of Appeals,” DeSantis said at an event on Tuesday. “But the important thing is these numbers are going down.”