The Diocese of St. Augustine, which contains 40 Catholic schools in Northeast Florida, rescinded its mask mandate just days after announcing it due to an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis.
On Friday, DeSantis signed his executive order blocking public schools from instituting mask mandates for students. Many school districts, including Duval County Public Schools, backed off of planned mask mandates as a result.
Private schools have changed course as well, citing the possibility of state funding being cut off due to the executive order.
“We accept scholarship dollars from the state and in the document there is a little ambiguity on whether or not our scholarship funding could be denied to us,” Deacon Scott Conway, superintendent of Catholic schools in the St. Augustine diocese said Tuesday. “We are not a public entity. But we do accept some public funds through families.”
According to Conway, millions of dollars in scholarships for students with learning disabilities, medical accommodations, or low-income families could be at risk if the diocese ran afoul of the executive order.
Conway sent out a letter to principals on July 29, the day before DeSantis signed the prohibition, announcing a mask mandate for all employees, faculty, staff and students.
But after the executive order, Conway sent out another letter Monday rescinding the mandate for students, instead strongly encouraging masks for all students and vaccinations for those who are eligible.
“We continue to monitor what's going on daily. We continue to work with the Florida Department of Health. We really are working to try to make sure that every student can get a Catholic education but also have it so that it's in an environment that is as safe as can be,” he said.
DeSantis’ order runs contrary to many recommendations from the CDC, medical experts and public health officials.
During an appearance in South Florida Tuesday touting conservation efforts in the Everglades, DeSantis took questions on the COVID surge that has been largely propelled by the highly infectious Delta variant.
When asked about his prohibition of mask mandates amid a spike in children being hospitalized and admitted to the ICU with COVID, DeSantis compared it to victim-blaming.
“Do you have any data to suggest that? Do you know if they were wearing masks?” DeSantis said. “You're blaming the kids saying they weren't wearing masks, and so they're in the ICU. With all due respect, I find that deplorable to blame a victim who ends up being hospitalized.”