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Leon School Board Opts To Keep New Mandatory Mask Policy

The 3-2 vote upholds a decision by Superintendent Rocky Hanna to reinstitute a mandatory mask policy. The policy survived an attempt by two members to overturn it.

The Leon County school board is upholding a decision by superintendent Rocky Hanna to reinstitute a mandatory school mask policy. The policy survived an attempt by board members DeeDee Rasmussen and Alva Striplin to overturn it.

Rasmussen said her effort to overturn the district’s mandatory school mask policy is based on a choice: follow the science, or follow the law?

“Which science do you follow?" Rasmussen questioned, noting the Florida Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued conflicting guidance.

"The law is relatively clear, although if I had three lawyers here, I’d have three opinions: home rule prevails, or the executive order of the governor. But that’s where I point out, again, our remedy to resolve that is the judicial process.”

Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna remained resolute in his decision to reinstitute a mandatory mask policy for schools. Parents have until the end of the week to submit paperwork from a physician in order to opt out.

“I’ve been approached by multiple national news organizations to give interviews … and I’ve turned every single one of them down. … It's not about politics. I’m not in a verbal spat with the president. I'm not running for reelection, I’m not running for president. I’m simply trying to keep our kids healthy and safe and keep our schools open," Hanna said, taking a dig at Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is up for reelection next year, has responded to criticism from President Joe Biden over his executive order and is considered a potential presidential contender.

Hanna notes since school began this month, some 900 students have been quarantined and more than 337 staff and students have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Our nine-day total is 335 [people]. The entire year last year we had 815 positive student cases. We’ve already eclipsed over 41% of the entire total for last year," he said.

More than 3,000 Leon County students have opted out of wearing masks. That’s about 10% of the student population.

Misinformation ran rampant at Tuesday’s board meeting, with some mask opponents questioning the validity of research that shows masks can help slow the spread of the virus. Others doubled-down on their opposition, and one parent said her child was forced to wear a mask, even though she opted out of the policy.

“The staff member ignored her, and despite my 5-year-old telling her no, she literally placed it on my child’s face. You are forcing masks on our children. That staff member did not have consent to do that," Valerie Tassey said.

Such an action violates DeSantis’ executive order regarding school mask policies. The governor believes such decisions should be voluntary according to the new Parents' Bill of Rights Law, which says parents have the right to make health care decisions for their kids.

The question of whether masking constitutes such a health care decision is the subject of a battle between the state and a group of parents who want district’s to be able to decide mask policies, that’s before a Leon County judge.

The battle in Leon schools has been further compounded by the recent deaths of two children who contracted COVID-19. Wendy Halik is one of the few people who spoke in favor of the district’s mandatory mask policy.

"Masks may be uncomfortable, but masks don’t kill. What kills is misinformation. What kills is putting your selfish sense of personal freedom above your sense of community responsibility,” Halik said.

Leon is one of nearly a dozen school districts in the state that is presently defying DeSantis’ ban on mandatory masking.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.