A new wave of COVID-19 infections spreading throughout Florida impacting younger people and the rise of the more contagious Delta variant have renewed debates about mask mandates in schools, prompting a vow from Gov. Ron DeSantis that he will order the state to ban any federal requirement for face coverings in classrooms.

Speaking Thursday in Fort Pierce after a ceremonial bill signing with House Speaker Chris Sprowls, DeSantis doubled down on his opposition to mask mandates for public-school students, saying he will call for a special legislative session if Washington moves towards requiring masks for children.

“There’s been talk about potentially people advocating at the federal level, imposing compulsory masks on kids,” DeSantis said. “We’re not doing that in Florida, OK? We need our kids to breathe.”

DeSantis on Wednesday endorsed Floridians getting vaccinated against COVID-19, but children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the shots. Last year, DeSantis pushed schools to reopen for in-person learning amid the pandemic.

“There shouldn’t be any coercive mandates on our schools. There’s going to be, it looks like, a campaign in Washington to try to change that,” DeSantis said. “At the end of the day, we gotta start putting our kids first. Is it really comfortable, is it really healthy for them to be muzzled?”

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DeSantis’ remarks flew in the face of the latest science and recommendations by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In its recently updated Science Brief: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs, the CDC said: “Most studies that have shown success in limiting transmission in schools have required that staff only or staff and students wear masks as one of the school’s prevention strategies. Inconsistent mask use may have contributed to school-based outbreaks.”

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that everyone older than 2 years should wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The conflicting guidance prompted Brevard School Board Chair Misty Belford to speak out against the governor, saying local school boards will be left struggling to decide which advice to follow. She also said it’s sometimes unclear how much authority individual districts have over mask policies.

“It’s a huge mess and once again it’s putting us in the middle of things,” Belford said. “If the state is going to be so boisterous to say that we cannot do something, then they should take ownership of that.”

If the federal government and the state end up giving conflicting directives on mask mandates in schools, “we (the School Board) would have to sit down with our legal team and get recommendations at that point,” Belford said.

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Belford said that Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said in an April memo that masks should be voluntary in Florida public schools in the 2021-2022 school year.

Belford said that some Brevard parents who have contacted Florida Chancellor of Public Schools Jacob Oliva have been told that decisions on mask requirements are up to individual schools, further muddying the water.

While some details about COVID-19 prevention will be discussed at next Thursday’s school board meeting — the last scheduled before the new school year starts in August — the board has no current plans to revisit the mask policy, Belford said. The district’s mask requirements were rescinded at the end of the previous school year in June.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about DeSantis’ opposition to mask mandates during a press briefing Thursday. Psaki said President Joe Biden’s administration “would have concern about any step that doesn’t abide by public health guidelines.”

Psaki told reporters the administration’s decisions about public health are driven by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has issued guidelines advising that children younger than 12 should wear masks in schools. The federal government has not mandated that they do so.

“They did already announce that several weeks ago as a part of their CDC guidance for schools,” Psaki said. “Because anybody under 12 is not eligible to be vaccinated, so they would not be vaccinated, and therefore they should be wearing a mask.”

Psaki, who noted that she is a parent, said that “we know masks aren’t the most comfortable thing” but told reporters that her children “are quite adjusted” to wearing them.

“If I were a parent in Florida, that would be greatly concerning to me,” Psaki said of DeSantis’ mask-mandate opposition. “Because kids under the age of 12 are not vaccinated, they’re not eligible yet. As the president said last night, obviously it’s going to be led by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), but certainly we hope that will be soon.”

Bailey Gallion is the education reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallion at bgallion@floridatoday.com or 321-242-3786.

Bobby Block is the Managing Editor for FLORIDA TODAY. Please consider subscribing to support important local news and investigations on government, business, crime and other topics you care about.

Contact Block at 321-242-3710 or bblock@floridatoday.com.

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