SARASOTA, Fla. — As parent debates, state fights and legal battles continue over school mask mandates in Florida, it should come as no surprise the paperwork that gives students the pass to opt out of wearing a mask on some school campuses is also generating controversy across the state.
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Currently, about a dozen school districts in Florida mandate masks be worn on campus.
About half of them allow parents to sign a form opting out of the mandate, while the other half require a doctor's note or doctor's signature on a medical exemption form.
Of those districts that require signed medical exemption forms, at least 675 waivers have been rejected by school districts since the start of school.
In Alachua County, the first school district to mandate masks this year, 85 medical opt-out forms have been received so far.
Of those, the district has rejected five because the form was signed by "someone not a qualified medical professional," a district spokesperson said in an email.
In Orange County, as of last week, the district had denied a total of 20 medical exemption forms. A spokesperson said the likely reasons were also because a legitimate medical provider did not sign the form.
But even forms signed by licensed Florida doctors have raised eyebrows.
Last month, a Leon County mom said a local emergency room doctor charged parents $50 for signed opt-out forms on official letterhead.
Dr. Brian Warden even advertised on social media his willingness to help parents obtain sign medical waivers. In one post he felt the need to clarify, "I am a real doctor."
As a result, Warden, who provides contract work for Capital Regional Medical Center in Tallahassee, was removed from providing services to patients, according to HCA Healthcare spokesperson Rachel Stiles.
"We act with absolute integrity in all that we do, and it is our expectation that third-party providers behave in a way that is consistent with those values. Immediately upon learning of this physician's actions, we began the process of removing him from providing services to our hospital patients," Stiles said in a company statement.
Warden did not respond to our request for comment.
In Sarasota County, Dr. Dan Busch, a Venice chiropractor, has made national headlines for signing hundreds of medical exemption forms for students.
He is accused of running a "waiver mill" by handing out signed forms like candy and without doing proper evaluations and assessments on students.
Paulina Testerman, a mom of two, helped lead the charge to out Busch's alleged actions. She leads a group called Stop the Spread SRQ, a grassroots group that supports school mask mandate and are also aimed at stopping the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.
"At the end of the day, whoever breaks the rules to get what they want, doesn't have any business working in health care," Testerman said about Busch's alleged actions.
Of the 650 medical exemption forms the Sarasota County District has rejected, a spokesperson said forms signed by Busch make up most of the district's denials.
Recently, the district's school board voted to limit the kinds of medical providers eligible to sign waivers. Chiropractors, including Busch, are no longer deemed eligible providers.
An attorney for Busch said the doctor had no comment, but his supporters have plenty to say.
"We are not pro-mask. We are not anti-mask. We are pro-parent rights. We are pro-liberty," said Alexis Spiegelman, who leads the Sarasota Chapter of Moms for Liberty.
Spiegelman said she volunteered at a waiver event this past weekend at a privately-owned recreation area known in Venice as The Hollow.
She said thousands of people showed up to get masks waivers signed by approved doctors in the county, but it remains unclear who those doctors were and how they evaluated students.
Video from the Sunday event shows lines of cars trying to enter the area, along with crowds of families wearing red, white and blue.
Spiegelman said there were food trucks and music.
"It was an incredible turnout," she said. "It's what we're seeing happen as a result of government overreach," Spiegelman added.
The Sarasota County school district has not yet released how many new forms it received this week following the event, who the forms were signed by or if any of those forms were rejected.
But Jay Wolfson, a University of South Florida Health Policy Professor and expert on medical ethics, said medical exemptions require examinations, diagnosis and those records must be maintained by the doctor who evaluated a person for an exemption.
"You can't rely on parents saying, 'My kid has asthma or a dermatologic condition.' You have to conduct an examination. You're not giving out lollipops here," he said.
Wolfson is not involved or commenting on any of the cases or doctors mentioned, but he said the rules of practicing medicine and issuing medical exemptions is clear for all medical professionals, even if the political pulse of our communities remain so shaky and gray.
"He’s practicing medicine, he’s not giving out philosophy lessons or lessons in good government, and if he's doing it because he wants parents to do what they feel comfortable about because of political beliefs, that ain't his job," Wolfson said.
Florida's Department of Health will not confirm or deny any complaints made against doctors who signed mask exemption waivers. Any complaints or investigations do not become public until 10 days after probable cause is found.