The two largest school districts in Florida voted during emergency meetings Wednesday to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on forced masking of children, requiring K-12 students to wear masks at school regardless of parental consent.
The school boards of Hillsborough and Miami-Dade Counties called emergency meetings to revisit the mask issue after Florida reported record-high daily average case counts for COVID-19.
The Hillsborough County school board voted to implement a 30-day mask mandate for students, faculty, and staff in response to a spike in COVID cases. The school district said in a statement that 5,599 students and 316 staff members have either tested positive for the virus or been in contact with someone who has, resulting in isolation for those who are sick and quarantine for those who are healthy but may have been exposed. According to data from the district, there have been 2,134 positive COVID-19 cases reported.
The Miami-Dade school board also voted for a temporary mask mandate, which will apply to all students, faculty, and visitors, allowing students to opt out only for a medical reason.
Combined, the two school districts serve more than 600,000 students.
They join school boards in Broward, Leon, and Alachua Counties in open defiance of DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education.
At the end of last month, DeSantis signed an executive order requiring that schools give parents the ability to opt out of forcing their children to wear masks. The governor said at the time that his administration was focused on protecting the rights of parents and that recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling for K-12 children to wear masks indoors did not properly consider their physical and mental well-being.
"The forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents' rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children. No politician is above the law, even school board members," DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said in a statement reacting to the school boards' decisions.
"It is disappointing that the school board chose to change their mask policy — which had previously protected the freedom for parents to opt their kids out, in compliance with Florida law," she added.
The school boards could face consequences from the Florida Department of Education.
On Tuesday the state school board ruled that the school districts in Alachua County and Broward County had violated the law by forcing all children to be masked. Possible punishments for the offending school officials include being removed by the state Board of Education or being reported to the state legislature, which could then take action against the offending school boards, Politico reported.
Previously, DeSantis threatened to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members that violate the executive order banning forced mask-wearing. But President Joe Biden's administration offered to go around the Florida Board of Education and provide federal COVID-19 relief funds to school districts directly to supplement their budgets in case of retaliatory cuts.
In a statement to Politico, Pushaw criticized the White House for offering to spend COVID-19 relief funds "on the salaries of superintendents and elected politicians, who don't believe that parents have a right to choose what's best for their children, than on Florida's students, which is what these funds should be used for."