Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order on Friday to "protect parents' freedom to choose" whether their children wear masks in schools.
"The federal government has no right to tell parents that in order for their kids to attend school in person, they must be forced to wear a mask all day, every day," DeSantis said in a statement. "Many Florida schoolchildren have suffered under forced masking policies, and it is prudent to protect the ability of parents to make decisions regarding the wearing of masks by their children."
The order bars school districts from forcing students to mask up, despite new guidance from the CDC, and ascases climb in the state like never before. This week, the masks should be required of everyone inside K-12 schools.
District school boards that are "unwilling or unable to comply" with DeSantis' law, the executive order states, will be susceptible to losing state funding.
In a notice about the executive order, the governor's office said the action is in response to Florida school boards considering or implementing school mask mandates. The office also falsely claimed the Biden administration has issued "unscientific" recommendations about school-aged children wearing masks.
The executive order states that "forcing students to wear masks lacks a well-grounded scientific justification" and that there is "no statistically-significant evidence" suggesting that counties with mask mandates fared better than those without in the previous school year.
The CDC says, however, that mask wearing is a critical step people can take to prevent getting and spreading COVID-19. Studies have shown their effectiveness. In one recent study — a peer-reviewed study of mask adherence and COVID transmission across the U.S. that was published in April — researchers found that 14 of the 15 states that had no mask policy for the public from April to September 2020 had a high rate of COVID-19. Eight states had at least 75% mask adherence during that time frame, the study found, and of those, none reported a high rate of the virus.
COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiration, which is why officials have pushed for people to wear masks. The U.S. is also now facing the spread of the highly-contagious delta variant.
DeSantis argued in his executive order that masks could "inhibit breathing," and lead to a buildup of "bacteria, parasites, fungi and other contaminants."
But the American Lung Association says masks do not cause low oxygen levels, and that "there is absolutely no scientific evidence that mask wearing or physical distancing weakens the immune system."
"Proper laundering of cloth masks removes any viruses, bacteria or respiratory secretions that may build up on the mask," Johns Hopkins says.
DeSantis' order comes as Florida is experiencing its highest numbers of daily COVID cases to date. On July 30, the state had 110,724 new cases of COVID-19, a record high, and 409 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
More than 160 people in the state 29 years or younger have died from COVID-19, including seven children under the age of 16. The Florida Hospital Association said on Wednesday that the "average age of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 is younger than previous peaks."
"The virus has a new target: the unvaccinated and younger people," said Florida Hospital Association President and CEO Mary C. Mayhew in a statement. "Previously healthy people from their teens to their 40s are now finding themselves in the hospital and on a ventilator...What you heard last year and last spring about this virus mostly targeting seniors and those with pre-existing conditions is not true today."
More than 95% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in Florida are people who are not fully vaccinated, the association said. As of July 30, there were 9,329 confirmed COVID hospitalizations in the state.
Some of the most prominent supporters of DeSantis' actions are Republican state legislators. State House Speaker Chris Sprowls said in a statement Friday they "demonstrate his faith and trust in our fellow Floridians."
"While there are some public officials who will seek to use the power of government to compel uniformity and adherence to their preferred course of conduct, that approach is not in keeping with Florida values," he said.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson said, "I trust Florida parents to decide" if their children should wear a mask, adding that he's "grateful" for DeSantis' "steady leadership at every stage of this pandemic."
Many, however, have criticized the move, including the Florida Education Association, the statewide teacher's union.
"Schools should be the safest place in Florida. No matter if we live in urban South Florida, in the rural Panhandle or somewhere in between, we all want our children to be healthy and safe, and for learning to continue uninterrupted for every child," the union said in a statement. "...Unfortunately, through his words and actions, Gov. DeSantis has made it clear he does not respect the freedom of locally elected officials to do what they feel is best for their communities."
On Thursday, the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also said it supports use of masks in schools.
"Since children under 12 years of age are still not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the vaccine will most likely not be available for this age group until winter of 2021," the group said, "most children are still at risk for Coronavirus infection and transmitting the infection to others."
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