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DeSantis: No mask mandates in Florida schools

By Staff | Aug 2, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis

Smiles, not masks.

Parental choice, not mandates.

That is the message Gov. Ron DeSantis shared Friday morning at a press conference in Cape Coral called to announce that he would issue an executive order that will prohibit school systems from mandating masks.

“I think the decision about whether parents want their kids to wear masks, I think that decision falls squarely in the contours of this parents bill of rights that I signed,” DeSantis said.

The new legislation, which went into effect July 1, lists the rights of parents as they pertain to education, health care, and criminal justice procedures. The bill prohibits “the state, its political subdivisions, any other governmental entities and any other institutions from infringing upon the fundamental right of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating a compelling state interest for such actions.”

According to DeSantis, who said he has followed and correctly interpreted data pertaining to COVID-19 since the beginning, there is no peer-reviewed analysis or validated U.S. studies that demonstrate a new need for masks, particularly for children.

“If you have been listening to some of the murmurs going around, particularly in Washington lately, listen to some of the stuff that’s being percolated around the CDC, there’s a movement to try to impose more restrictions on the American people,” DeSantis said. “And I just want to say in Florida, there will be no lockdowns. There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida.”

Instead, parents will make the best choice for their children as he and his wife have made for theirs, he said.

“I have young kids,” DeSantis said. “My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids, we never have. I want to see my kids smiling.”

If parents think otherwise, that is OK, too, he said.

“At the same time, if a parent really feels that this is something that’s important for their kid, we’re not stopping that,” DeSantis said. “They absolutely have every right to equip their students with whatever types of mask that they want, and have them go to school, if they believe that that’s a protection that’s important for their children. I think that’s the fairest way to do it, to let the parents have the decision.”

Parents in attendance at the shoulder-to-shoulder event held at Two Meatballs in the Kitchen in the South Cape vocally — and frequently — agreed.

Sandwiched in between DeSantis’ speech and his closing remarks were short personal, and sometimes tearful, vingettes from parents and teachers who shared stories of a school year gone awry for what they said was too many children last year, including those for whom masks were inappropriate due to health or education challenges.

The crowd, few of whom wore masks, had cheers for these speakers as well.

With the number of COVID- 19 cases again climbing due, in part, to the latest mutation of the virus, the CDC is now recommending that even vaccinated individuals “maximize protection from the Delta variant and possibly spreading it to others” by wearing a mask indoors in public in areas “of substantial or high transmission.”

The CDC also recommends masks for those at high risk of serious illness from COVID, those with compromised immune systems, those who are older, and those with underlying medical conditions.

Vaccination is highly urged.

Florida is among the named hotspots.

Here in Lee County, Lee Health officials on Wednesday reported a 600% increase of COVID-19 patients in their care in just a few weeks’ time.

“In the last month, the number of COVID-19 patients we are caring for in our hospitals has jumped from around 30 to 199 this morning, and now to 210 this afternoon (217 as of Thursday),” said system President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci in a media call. “That is an increase of 600% in just a couple of weeks. This concerning trend is both threatening the well-being of Southwest Florida and beginning to put a strain on Lee Health’s resources, specifically in the emergency department. This week, patients in the ED are experiencing longer wait times than normal for this time of year as the coronavirus spreads through our community and the demand for COVID testing has skyrocketed.”

He supported vaccination to help knock down the numbers, which also saw a big bump last summer.

“Mutations like the current Delta variant spread more quickly, and vaccination helps to lower the risk,” Antonucci said. “This virus is affecting people of all ages and levels of health, and whether you come into our clinic at Gulf Coast Medical Center or get vaccinated at one of our area’s many local retailers, it is the best thing you can do to help keep yourself and others safe.”

He also supported following the new CDC guidelines.

“Lee Health supports these recommendations, as the coronavirus ravages our community,” Antonucci said. “Wearing a mask is one easy step you can take to add an extra layer of protection on top of the vaccine. Our goal is to keep people out of the hospital, and I believe following this recommendation is an effective way to do that. As a reminder, masks are required in all Lee Health facilities, and we ask that you bring your own.”

He conceded that people may be weary of the need for protective measures.

“I know we have been at this a long time, and just a month ago there was a lot of reason for optimism that we have turned a corner, but the unfortunate truth is that we are still very much in the thick of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic,” Antonucci said. “By getting vaccinated and wearing a mask, everyone in our area can help save lives, keep people out of the hospital and conserve community resources to make sure we continue to be able to effectively care for all patients who need us in Southwest Florida.”

Schools open Aug. 10. The School District of Lee County has already announced that masks will be voluntary for the 2021-2022 school year, but are recommended for those who are unvaccinated. They also may be required for a student who is sent to an “isolation room” due to symptoms such a cough, runny nose, or sneezing.

One of the changes this school year will categorizing symptoms into high and low risk.

“If a student or employee has low-risk symptoms, we are asking them to stay home. They must be symptom free for 24 hours without medication to return,” Health Services Coordinator Beth Wipf said, adding that they will not need a doctor’s note to return to campus.

The low-risk symptoms currently include a low-grade fever. congestion/runny nose, muscle or body aches, headache, fatigue, sore throat, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea

High-risk symptoms include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, cough and new loss of taste or smell.

“We may have to shift some of our low- risk symptoms back to high risk,” Wipf said if guidance is provided by the CDC and the Florida Department of Health Lee County otherwise.

Another change is if an employee or student is fully vaccinated, two weeks after their second dose, will not have to quarantine. If the employee or student is not vaccinated they have to quarantine for 10 days. It could be reduced to seven days, with returning on the eighth day if they have a negative PCR test on day six or later after exposure.

District officials said the Florida Department of Health has a list of those vaccinated and they will be able to look up to see if someone can go off the quarantine list, if need be.

— Valarie Harring, CJ Haddad and Meghan Bradbury contributed to this report.