TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — On Tuesday, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna sent a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran asking for flexibility to issue a temporary masks requirement for kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
In the letter, Hanna expressed concerns about the number of children returning to in-person learning as Florida COVID-19 hospitalizations increase daily.
Hanna said four children in the county are in the hospital and two pre-K teachers are in the intensive care unit. Last year, 800 in-person students tested positive in the district.
The superintendent also said mental health referrals were up last school year due to mask mandates.
"On more than one occasion, I have said publicly our local data would inform any decision that impacts Leon County Schools," said Hanna. "Currently, our county COVID-19 positivity rate is 13.7%. Earlier this summer, our positivity rate was much lower. Another one of my key benchmarks was the hospitalization of children. Last school year, we had zero hospitalizations of school-aged children ages 5-11 and only three from ages 15-24. Because of the delta variant, more children are being hospitalized than previously."
Hanna said until more information regarding the impact this variant is having, he believes temporarily requiring masks for employees and Pre-K—8th-grade students is the right thing to do.
He also announced, beginning on Monday, August 9, masks will be required for all LCS employees. This mask requirement applies only when indoors, and when six feet of distancing cannot be obtained.
For months, Hanna said he would make masks optional he saw more children being hospitalized with COVID.
It's a debate that has played out in the school district at school board meetings throughout the summer.
Hanna says the turning point, seeing some of our communities youngest members in hospitals fighting the virus.
Pediatrician Dr. David Paul Robinson is applauding the Superintendent's letter.
"If we persist on this letting parents decide routine, people need to understand that children are going to die, and many more children are going to die than any of us want to see happen," said Dr. Robinson.
Dr. Robinson says the delta variant has the ability to affect children the way the original strain impacted older adults.
"It's much more infectious. When children get exposed, they're going to get a higher load of the virus," he explained.
Dr. Robinson says masking is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the virus.
"I think we need to go back to social distancing masking indoors, and of course vaccinating. I think if we do those things, particularly the last one, we're going to save society a lot of unnecessary loss of life," he said.
Hanna says if the school district moves forward with requiring masks, parents who are against the requirement should schedule a one on one with their child's school.
Hanna says the Governor has until the end of the week to respond before LCS revisits the topic, just days before the start of school.
As LCS waits for an official response from the governor's office, the Department of Education tells ABC 27
Parents know what’s best for their children and should be empowered to make their own choices with regards to masks. At this time, additional information will be forthcoming once the Florida Department of Education collaborates with the Florida Department of Health to satisfy the requirements of the Emergency Order.
Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis told ABC 27 the rules are being finalized this week and pursuant to Executive Order 21-175, the Florida Department of Health will enter rulemaking in collaboration with the Florida Department of Education to protect parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.
"We are finalizing health and education emergency rules this week that do not prohibit masks in schools but will require parents to have the right to opt their children out. School districts will be expected to allow parents to make this choice."
"One final point the Governor has made many times, and I’d reiterate in response to the Superintendent’s claim: there is no empirical evidence to support the assertion that mandating children to wear face coverings in schools would have any impact on the county’s positivity rate. Last year, Florida schools were open the whole academic year. We did not see a significant difference in COVID spread when comparing districts that had mask mandates versus those that were mask optional."
Read the letter to DeSantis below:
Dear Governor DeSantis,
First, I would like to thank you for ensuring our schools opened last fall. While many schools across the country remained closed, schools in Florida kept their doors open. Given the circumstances, what we accomplished last year was remarkable.
When school ended last June, I announced to our community that masks would become optional for summer programs in Leon County and would remain optional when our students returned to begin the new school year this August. Given the totality of the circumstances at the end of the school year, I completely agreed with your position that families should make their own mask wearing decisions.
Governor DeSantis there were two driving factors that lead me to make that decision in June:
First, data did not reflect that the virus was having a serious negative health impact on our school-aged children. Over the course of the entire school year we had just over 800 in-person students test positive for COVID-19. Over the same period of time, there were zero hospitalizations of children 5 to 11, four hospitalizations of children 12 to 18, and zero deaths. The data also proved that school-aged children were not spreading the Coronavirus-19 to other members of their family- as once feared.
The second reason that impacted my decision to allow for optional mask wearing was the social and emotional impact that wearing masks was having on our students. I visited every one of our 42 school campuses during both the fall and spring. I saw the light in our students’ eyes dim over the course of the year. In fact, our internal data reflected an uptick in mental health referrals.
I have spent the better part of the summer steadfastly informing my community of these two facts as the rationale for optional masking in the fall. Publicly, I have said many times that it was my decision and that I was in complete agreement with you.
Governor, over the past two weeks, it has become clear that the Delta variant and its effect on school-age children is very different than the original Alpha version of the virus. What scientists learn about the Delta variant continues to grow; however, we already know that the Delta variant is significantly more contagious than the Alpha variant.
Complicating matters is that our classrooms will be much denser this year than last year. Many more parents will be sending their children to in-person learning this August. We will make every effort to socially distance as much as possible; however, it will be challenging.
Over the last 60 days, I have stood firm in my belief that a mask mandate was the wrong course of action. With that said, I believe that new data and information as well as student instructional models compels us to rethink mask protocols. School-wide mask wearing is a proven, mitigating strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
In the last ten days alone, before school has even opened, four school-aged children in Leon County have been admitted to local hospitals. Two of our Pre-K teachers are currently in the Intensive Care Unit at one of our local hospitals. According to local health officials, cases of positive, symptomatic minors are skyrocketing. Our county positivity rate is above 14% and, three times higher compared to August of last year. I cannot ignore our latest local data and information.
I have said throughout this process that my decisions would be guided by science and local health data. This week I have met with our principals, health experts, doctors, local leaders, parents, and students. These conversations have informed my current position regarding Leon County Schools and masks.
Governor, please understand that districts across the State of Florida have their own local communities to answer to in a different manner than you. They say all politics is local. I’m asking you to allow us the flexibility and the autonomy to make the decisions for our schools that best fit our local data and information in Leon County. At this time, we would like to implement a temporary mask requirement in grades Pre-K—8, in order to help reduce the community positivity rate. These students are most vulnerable as they are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
One size doesn’t fit all 67 counties and 2.6 million students. Just as you stand up for the sovereignty of the State of Florida from federal mandates and executive orders, I too must advocate on behalf of my community and my school children.
We do not know each other personally, but I am sure we both entered public service because we wanted to help make our community, our state and our country a better place. We may even want to inspire the next generation of young people to become the next Governor or a School Superintendent. Like you, I am a product of our public schools. I have dedicated my entire career to education and helping children succeed in life. One thing has always guided every decision I have ever made—the safety and well-being of our children.
It is the challenge of every leader to not allow pride or politics cloud our better judgement, and to be guided by community input, science and experts in the field. Because the COVID-19 landscape continues to evolve, as Superintendent, I’m learning that no matter how far you may have gone down a road, it is never too late to turn back and make a choice that is best for the community as a whole.
Given the Delta variant and the science emerging from it, I am urging you to join me in helping to keep our children safe from COVID-19, and to allow school districts the autonomy to choose what is best for their community.
For more information on COVID-19 protocols, school operations, and vaccination and testing sites, please visit the InClass website www.leonschools.net/inclass