Florida governor's office says state could withhold salaries of officials who enact school mask mandates

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office, pictured on July 13, in Miami said that the state board of education could move to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who disregard the governor’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates for school districts.

By Rebekah Riess and Steve Almasy, CNN

(CNN) -- In a move that escalated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' fight over mask mandates, the governor's office said Monday that the state board of education could move to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who disregard the governor's executive order that effectively prohibits mask mandates in school districts.

Last month DeSantis, a Republican, issued an executive order requiring the state's health and education departments to create rules based on parents' rights to make the health care decisions for their children who are students. Several lawsuits have since been filed challenging the constitutionality of the executive order.

Several school districts are considering mask mandates and a few have said masks will be required, with some opt-out exceptions.

A statement from the governor's office on Monday says the state board of education "could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members."

His spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, pinned a tweet Monday that reads: "Ultimately — Education funding is for the students. The kids didn't make the decision to encroach upon parents' rights. So any financial penalties for breaking the rule would be targeted to those officials who made that decision."

The statement says one of DeSantis' priorities is to protect parents' rights.

"I think the fairest thing to do is just say let parents make the decisions," DeSantis said last week at an event at a Tampa hospital.

A GOP senator from Louisiana said Sunday he disagrees with DeSantis' ban on local school officials imposing mask mandates.

"The local official should have control here. I don't want top down from Washington, DC. I don't want top down from a governor's office," Sen. Bill Cassidy, who is also a physician, told CNN's Dana Bash.

"When it comes to local conditions, if my hospital is full and my vaccination rate is low and infection rate is going crazy, we should allow local officials to make those decisions best for their community," he added.

The Florida Democratic Party on Monday addressed DeSantis' stance while referring to Cassidy's comments.

"Gov. DeSantis, if you won't listen to pleas from worried parents, students and children from across Florida, will you at least listen to physician and GOP Senator @BillCassidy? Local school boards should decide on public health measures, not Tallahassee," it tweeted.

Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, said the coronavirus doesn't care about politics or rhetoric.

"What the virus does is it preys on any divisions in society," he told CNN. "And it is extremely disappointing to see governors around the country banning things that would save lives and keep our kids and teachers in school learning. You can fight this virus either with science or without it."

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that DeSantis' position and the similar one of Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott are "so self-defeating."

Hotez said that heath officials have seen a sharp rise in children being hospitalized.

"And for the first time that I can remember since the start of this pandemic, we're seeing kids in pediatric intensive care units in large numbers to the point where even pediatric intensive care units are getting overwhelmed," he said.

That can be attributed in part to another respiratory virus, but a lot of it is Covid-19 as well, he said.

"If we're already seeing Covid-19 pediatric ICU admissions in children's hospitalizations before school's open, what's going to happen after that?" he said. "Schools are going to be an accelerant for this if we don't have all of those kids masked."

DeSantis' executive order says school mask guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "lacks a well-grounded scientific justification."

Mask mandates considered

Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna said Monday morning that, after requesting flexibility from the governor's office and receiving no response, schools in his district will start the academic year with a temporary mask requirement for students in pre-K through eighth grade, unless otherwise noted by a physician or psychologist.

He said he knew the decision goes against what the governor and department of health have said.

"At the end of the day, if something happened and things went sideways for us this week and next week because we started school and, heaven forbid, we lost a child to this virus, I can't just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida. I can't," Hanna explained.

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Hanna told school officials at a meeting Monday afternoon: "You can't put a price tag on someone's life, including my salary."

Superintendent for Alachua Public Schools, Dr. Carlee Simon, who wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that her district would defy the ban, told CNN's Don Lemon that DeSantis isn't taking the coronavirus situation seriously.

"The governor should take the conservative step and do everything he can to protect the lives everyone in our community," Simon said. "I believe the governor has other interests that he's focusing on."

The superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools has said his district is considering mask requirements when schools open in two weeks. The district is Florida's largest public school system.

Alberto Carvalho, speaking in an individual capacity, said Monday: "We have established a process that requires consultation with experts in the areas of public health and medicine. We will follow this process, which has served us well, and then make a final decision.

"At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees."

Hillsborough County Public Schools will require face coverings, but Superintendent Addison Davis said Sunday that parents can opt their children out. Classes in the Tampa area district start Tuesday.

Orange County Public Schools issued a mask mandate for the upcoming school year, according to a press release issued by the district late Friday. Orange County is home to Orlando.

Gov. Ron DeSantis' spokesperson Christina Pushaw said the policies of most of the districts are fine, except for those in Leon and Alachua, because they give the parents the option to opt out.

A surge of cases in the Sunshine State

Florida is seeing a dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases. The state reported 134,506 new Covid-19 cases over the past week on Friday, more than any other seven-day period during the pandemic.

And the average number of new daily cases in Florida over the past two weeks is 107% higher than the prior two-week period, according to data on Monday from Johns Hopkins University.

The state on Sunday reported 13,596 new Covid-19 cases among children younger than 12 years old last week, according to data from the Florida Department of Health (DOH).

There were 10,585 new cases for the age group reported the previous week, ending July 29, DOH data shows.

With many Florida children headed back to school this week, the current new case positivity rate for children under 12 is 20.5%, which is higher than the overall state new case positivity rate of 18.9%, according to DOH weekly reports.

The new case positivity rate for the 12-19 age group is 24.3%, according to DOH data released Friday.

The-CNN-Wire
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