ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida's governor on Thursday stood firm in the face of a growing number of public school districts that are breaking state law by imposing universal mask mandates for students to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Speaking in Orlando, DeSantis issued a stern warning to any school officials who violate his emergency order, warning there will be consequences.
"The penalties will be applied to the politicians who violated the law. There will be no penalties applied to school children or teachers," DeSantis said. "The penalties will be focused on the politicians."
Palm Beach, Indian River, and at least eight other school districts throughout Florida are requiring facial coverings for children without the ability to opt out.
DeSantis said the sweeping mandates are a direct violation of the newly passed Parents' Bill of Rights, which gives parents and guardians the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
"When you have a Bill of Rights, if your individual right as a parent is violated, then you have the ability then to go in and seek vindication," DeSantis said.
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The Palm Beach County School Board voted Wednesday night to explore legal action against the governor's emergency order, arguing he overstepped his Constitutional authority by taking away the school district's ability to provide a "safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."
"These are trying times during COVID-19 pandemic. With the delta variant, it's truly a challenge for everyone," said School Board Member Marcia Andrews. "Health and safety is number one."
Board Member Alexandria Ayala said the School District of Palm Beach County is expecting to receive some type of warning letter from the Florida Department of Education by the end of the week.
"What will be in it we're not yet certain of, given the stricter protocols we have under our mask mandate," Ayala said. "Our authority as school board members is very clear, and we will go to court, if necessary, to exercise that authority to keep students safe."
School districts in Broward and Alachua counties received a similar warning letter last week, giving them 48 hours to comply with state law or have the salaries of school board members cut.
Both districts refused to concede and are keeping their mask mandates in place.
Superintendent Dr. David Moore of the School District of Indian River County said the 2021/22 academic year is already off to a challenging start.
"What we've experienced in the first two-and-a-half weeks of school absolutely is a new environment," Moore said. "This is 1,000 times worse than at any point it was last year."
DeSantis said Thursday he expects groups of outraged parents who are strongly against the school mask requirements to pursue legal action throughout the state.
"In terms of health, there's parents whose kids have not done well wearing the mask all day," DeSantis said. "It has taken a toll on kids throughout Florida."
A Leon County circuit court judge is expected to rule Friday on a lawsuit from pro-mask parents who argue that DeSantis' executive order -- which essentially bans school districts from imposing facial covering mandates -- puts the health and safety of students at risk.
DeSantis said if the state loses in court, it will file an appeal.
"We feel that the Legislature really made a big statement with their Parental Bill of Rights, and that's an important piece of legislation," DeSantis said.