DCPS Teachers Voice Concerns About Safety As DeSantis Blocks Mask Mandates

Gov. Ron DeSantishas issued an executive order prohibiting school districts from imposing mask-wearing requirements for students less than two weeks before the start of the new school year. 

Scoffing at revised COVID-19 guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DeSantis questioned potential health effects of forcing students to wear masks for hours at a time and said parents should be allowed to decide whether their children use face coverings.

“If you have been listening to some of the murmurs going around, particularly in Washington lately, if you listen to some of the stuff that's being percolated around the CDC, there's a movement to try to impose more restrictions on the American people,” DeSantis said Friday at Two Meatballs in the Kitchen restaurant in Cape Coral. “And I just want to say in Florida, there will be no lockdowns. There will be no school closures. No mandates in the state of Florida.”

The Broward County School Board on Wednesday said it intended to require students to wear masks when they return to class. 

On Tuesday, the CDC recommended that teachers, students and school staff members wear masks, as Florida and other states are seeing major increases in COVID-19 because of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus. The federal government has not mandated masks in schools.

The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Thursday called for the “universal” use of masks in schools. Meanwhile, the state’s largest teachers union issued a statement Friday that supported local decision-making on health and safety issues.

“In a state as large and diverse as Florida, decisions on health and safety will not come in one-size-fits-all solutions, and that is why it is important for the will of the people, as expressed by their locally elected officials, to determine decisions regarding health and safety in schools,” the Florida Education Association said in a statement. “Unfortunately, through his words and actions, Gov. DeSantis has made clear he does not respect the freedom of locally elected officials to do what they feel is best for their communities.”

Dr. Bernard Ashby, a Miami cardiologist and Florida State Lead for the Committee to Protect Medicare, blasted DeSantis’s for taking control away from local government.

“A year and a half into this pandemic, we know that masks are a simple and effective way to help prevent virus spread, and from a medical perspective it makes absolutely zero sense to discourage their use,” he said. “Especially since many school-aged children aren’t old enough yet to take the safe, effective vaccines, DeSantis’ power grab will put the health of kids and teachers alike at risk.”

In Duval County, the School Board last week changed its mask guidelines from “optional” to “strongly recommended,” a move that Palm Avenue teacher Chris Guerrieri, a longtime critic of the board, derided as “going from doing nothing to still doing nothing.” 

“I’m not sure if everybody knows how difficult the last school year was, how much extra work teachers had to do. I’ve never worked harder in my life than I worked last school year.” This year, Guerreri said the same challenges persist but with less support from local and state leaders. 

“I hope I’m wrong, but I have no confidence that the school board and superintendent are going to put mine, my students’, and my family’s health first,” Guerrieri said.  

“I definitely have concerns,” said A. Philip Randolph High School teacher Albrista Benwell. “I was really hoping that with everything happening here in Florida, that the school board would come out with some last-minute protections for our students and faculty, and those members that are unable to get vaccinated.” 

On Friday, DCPS Superintendent Diana L. Greene announced that for 30 days beginning Monday, district employees will be required to wear masks. 

“Sadly, our own DCPS family has been tragically impacted by the loss of several employees over the past two weeks," Greene wrote. "Morally, I simply cannot enter another school year without ensuring every reasonable precaution is being taken to ensure the safety of our students, employees and our community.  I have concluded that to best protect our students and employees, a temporary mask requirement for all district employees is needed immediately."

She said that she would have imposed the same 30-day requirement for students, were it not for the order from DeSantis. 

A caller on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross Friday, who introduced herself as Cate and said she teaches at Riverside High School, threatened to quit if mask mandates were not implemented. 

“If the school board doesn’t do the right thing and put in place a mask mandate this coming Tuesday at the School Board meeting, I will not be in my classroom on Wednesday. I am resigning,” she said. 

The caller said she wrote as much in a letter to Superintendent Greene and had not received a response. 

Though children typically have less severe symptoms from COVID-19, at least 18 have been hospitalized with COVID this week at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, according to Baptist Medical CEO Michael Mayo

In addition to signing his executive order, DeSantis has suggested the possibility of calling a special legislative session to counter any moves by the federal government to require students to wear masks.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called DeSantis’ plan for an executive order a “decisive action” that has the speaker’s “full support.”

“We’ve come a long way since the start of this pandemic, when a disease we knew so little about threatened to overwhelm our health care infrastructure,” Sprowls said in a statement. “We understand our situation so much more now than then, and with that understanding comes power and responsibility. While there are some public officials who will seek to use the power of government to compel uniformity and adherence to their preferred course of conduct, that approach is not in keeping with Florida values.”

In a separate statement, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said parents need to be involved when it comes to mask decisions.

“I trust Florida parents to evaluate all of the information available and make the best decision about whether or not their children will be wearing a mask when they return to school next month,” Simpson said.

Florida has been one of the hardest-hit areas of the country by the surge in COVID-19, accounting for about 20 percent of the cases nationally in recent days.

DeSantis appeared at the restaurant with several parents and teachers who questioned mask requirements and vaccines.

DeSantis' order directs the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health and Department of Education to issue emergency rules protecting the rights of parents to make decisions about children wearing masks. He said the order expands on a new state law that spells out a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” related to education and health care.

“I have young kids. My wife and I are not going to do the mask thing with the kids,” DeSantis said. “We never have. I want to see my kids smiling. I want them having fun.”

In Jacksonville, Randolph High teacher Albrista Benwell said plenty of her colleagues and her students have swallowed misinformation about the coronavirus and are resisting calls to wear masks and get vaccinated. 

“It’s hard for those of us who are concerned to be ignored, and not have those concerns met, and just watch as we’ve seen for the last year, people are dying, and there’s not a reason for it.”

Classes begin August 10 in Duval County. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.