© Joe Raedle/Getty Images Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a COVID-19 vaccine passport ban into law in May. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned school mask mandates and threatened to withhold funding.
- One school official, from the seventh-largest district in the US, told Insider DeSantis has caused chaos and panic among parents.
- “We should have the ability to make decisions for the people who elected us,” she said.
- “Our governor is the mad king of the COVID era,” Jessica Vaughn told Insider. “It feels like a nightmare I can’t wake up from.”
Vaughn has served on the board of Hillsborough County Public Schools, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, since 2020. It’s the third-largest district in the state of Florida, where school officials are swept up in a battle with the governor over masks.
DeSantis banned mask mandates in schools just weeks before students were set to go back, threatening to withhold state funding to schools that had mask requirements. The order runs contrary to current guidance from the CDC, which recommends all students and staff wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.
On Monday, days before many Florida kids returned to the classroom, DeSantis doubled down on his anti-mask crusade, threatening to withhold paychecks of school leaders flouting his ban. Vaughn said the ban and the timing of the announcement left the school district scrambling to return kids to the classroom in the safest possible way, especially as the Delta variant tears through the state. She said parents have been “hysterical” trying to decide if it’s safe for their kids to be in school.
“You have panicked parents, people who feel, ‘what are my choices: either sending my child into a potentially threatening, dangerous environment where they could get very sick or bring home sickness, or not send them to school?'” she said.
In July the school wasn’t considering a mask mandate, Vaughn said, but in the past few weeks the more transmissible Delta variant, which is causing a huge spike in infections among children, changed everything.
She said the pressure from parents to mandate masks made it obvious it would be the right thing to do, “but before we really had a chance to pivot, the governor came down pretty hard and early with his threats.”
Some parents in the district oppose masks, resulting in heated school board meetings where members are called “Nazis” and “fascists” and accused of child abuse for recommending masks, Vaughn said.
But she added the board receives twice as many emails from pro-mask parents who are afraid to come to the meetings and be in tight indoor spaces with anti-maskers who are sometimes aggressive.
Vaughn said DeSantis is not only ignoring the concerns of parents and healthcare providers in her community but also making it impossible for officials like her to govern at the local level.
“We should have the ability to make decisions for the people who elected us,” she said, adding that his ban represents an overreach of state government, preventing local communities from making the best decisions for themselves. She said it’s the same thing DeSantis lashes out at the federal government for doing to states.
DeSantis has fought especially hard for Florida to make its own decisions during the pandemic, suing the Biden administration and the CDC over cruise ship restrictions.
Insider has reached out to DeSantis’s office for comment.
Vaughn said the disconnect between what the state is doing and what her local community wants is unbearable, prompting some parents to ask: “How is this even happening?”
She shares their desperation: “I don’t know how we got to a place where it’s okay to gamble with our children’s health and safety,” Vaughn said.
Parents in her district have begged the board to fight against the state, as other districts have done, but the superintendent has said the district cannot risk losing even a cent of state funding. For now, the district is trying its best to mitigate COVID-19 transmission without defying the governor.
However, if the first week back was any indication, it’s going to be an uphill battle: After just four days, nearly 4,500 students were under isolation or quarantine orders after a positive test or exposure, and nearly 500 people – students and teachers – reported they had tested positive for COVID-19.