TAMPA BAY, 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.
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.
We’ve learned 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 5 because the form was signed by “someone not a qualified medical professional,” a district spokesperson told us 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 told us about a local ER doctor charging parents $50 for signed opt-out forms that would be to parents 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 told us 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’s 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 healthcare,” 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 Dr. Dan 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 Dr. Busch told us Busch 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. She leads the Sarasota Chapter of Moms for Liberty. Spiegelman told us 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 USF 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 grey.
“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,” said Wolfson.
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 ten days after probable cause is found.