I live in Florida and I am so, so tired. It feels like I have whiplash from the back-and-forth with the damn mask mandate controversy. At the beginning of the school year, a mask mandate didn’t even seem possible because as of June 30, Governor DeSantis had issued an executive order banning mask mandates. He went as far as to threaten to withhold salaries of school board members who defied the order and opted to implement mask mandates in their districts.
Where I live in Brevard County, that meant that for those of us who had been contacting school board members and asking them to issue a district-wide mask mandate, we received a lot of “So sorry, our hands are tied!”-type responses.
We did our best to spread the word about the effectiveness of masks and hoped that a majority of parents would opt in of their own free will and mask their children. But Trumpism, anti-science ideologies, and conspiracy theories run rampant around here. I was pleased to see when I showed up to my daughter’s elementary school registration day that all but two people — adults — were wearing masks. One of those adults was wearing a “Moms for Liberty” T-shirt. (Former local school board member Tina Descovich founded the group last year and it has since gone national, exploding in membership. The group doesn’t just protest masks — they also protest LGBTQ, and specifically trans, rights. Descovich was also vocally in favor of arming teachers in the wake of the Parkland shooting. Her group is a stinking skidmark on the dirty underwear of society.)
On August 6, a group of parents in favor of mask mandates filed a lawsuit against the state, citing a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — each of the parents has a child with disabilities attending a Florida school. The lawsuit argues that their children’s disabilities put them at greater risk of becoming ill or dying from COVID-19, and the state banning measures to reduce their risk is a violation of the ADA. “If students with disabilities cannot go to school safely,” Miami attorneys Matthew Dietz and Stephanie Langer wrote in the lawsuit, “then no one can go to school safely.”
On September 8, Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper ruled that school districts could enforce their mask rules while the court reviewed the lawsuit filed by parents.
In my district, that meant the voices of doctors, scientists, and concerned parents were finally heard. On August 30, the school board narrowly passed a 30-day mask mandate, to be reviewed near its expiration as to whether to renew.
But then, on Friday, September 10, the appeals court sided with DeSantis — reinstating his ban on mask mandates. In my district, that meant that a bunch of parents gleefully sent their children to school without masks. Yesterday, I received a text and an email from the district reminding everyone that the mask mandate is still very much in effect.
See? Whiplash. I’m so, so tired.
On the same day the appeals court sided with DeSantis, the Department of Education announced its Office for Civil Rights will begin an investigation to determine whether DeSantis’s executive order is in violation of the ADA, by prohibiting school districts from mandating masks. The department will also investigate Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah for similar offenses.
DeSantis has in fact withheld salaries from school board members who defied his order. In Alachua County, $13,429 has been withheld — the sum of one month’s pay of four board members who voted in favor of a mask mandate (a fifth board member who was appointed by DeSantis to fill a vacancy was not present for the vote and did not have pay withheld). In Broward County, $35,080 has been withheld — the sum of one month’s pay for the district’s nine board members.
The Biden administration has stepped in though, saying it would fill in the pay gaps in districts that are being penalized by state governments.
So, as of now, in my school district, masks are still mandated. My 11-year-old daughter will hopefully be eligible to receive a vaccine upon approval in October, if that happens.
Until then, I’ll keep massaging my temples in frustration that the politics of my state is such an embarrassing shit show, and that so many people are so incomprehensibly selfish that they would put their “freedom” to not wear a mask above the freedom of everyone else in their community to be protected from a potentially deadly disease.
As for DeSantis, he maintains he is in the right, and that mask mandates violate a recently passed Florida law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights. He says the new law means “we should protect the freedoms and statutory rights of students and parents by resting with the parents the decision whether their children should wear masks in school.”
The thing that is always missing from “freedom” statements like DeSantis’s, though, is that there is no scientific recommendation included. It’s one thing to say that parents should be allowed to make their own choices for their families — it’s another to say that while also implying that masks are unnecessary, that fears of the virus are overblown, that scientists and experts have an agenda are misleading us. If you’re going to say that parents should have a right to decide for themselves, then also do the ethical thing and provide scientific facts and recommendations to help those parents make an actually informed decision.
The premise that mask mandates are an attack on “parents’ rights” is pure, self-absorbed delusion. What about the rights of parents whose kids are at greater risk of a severe COVID-19 infection? Do their rights, and the rights of their kids to attend school safely not matter? I think we know the answer. To anti-maskers, apparently the only rights that matter are theirs.