Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced Friday that parents will be given the choice of whether their children follow mask rules in school this fall, challenging federal guidance and local school districts in what critics called an “irresponsible” and “appalling” decision amid a surge of infections.

Florida reported more than 17,000 new cases on Friday, eight times the daily infections reported last month. The delta variant coupled with vaccine holdouts have led to a national surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. DeSantis’s announcement came after several Republican-led states have barred mask mandates in schools.

With schools in Florida set to resume in-person learning in the coming weeks, the long-awaited return to normalcy for schoolchildren may come with new challenges as school districts contend with protecting kids who are not yet eligible to receive doses of coronavirus vaccines.

DeSantis, an outspoken critic of mask recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters and a cheering, largely maskless crowd that he did not believe masks were necessary to prevent children from transmitting the virus in classrooms, even as the state reported more than 21,000 infections among children younger than 19 this week.

DeSantis has pitched himself for reelection next year — and possibly for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 — by resisting calls for stricter measures to prevent the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 39,000 people in his state.

Shortly after the news conference in Southwest Florida, DeSantis signed an executive order that allowed the state’s education official to withhold funds to school boards that impose mask mandates in violation of the new rules.

“Why would we have the government force masks on our kids when many of these kids are already immune through prior infection, they’re at virtually zero risk of significant illness and when virtually every school personnel had access to vaccines for months and months?” DeSantis said.

The risk of significant illness for children with the virus is low but it remains possible: More than 16,000 children have been hospitalized with coronavirus in 24 states and New York City as of July 22, according to a database from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. While all Floridians over 12 are eligible to get the vaccine, including teachers, nearly 49 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

Broward County Public Schools, among the largest school districts in the country, passed a mask mandate Wednesday. After news of DeSantis’s order, school board member Debbi Hixon said the district will likely not challenge the state.

“If he makes an emergency rule and we are not legally allowed to mandate masks, then we will have to change our policy,” Hixon told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I am not looking to defy the governor. I believe it is an irresponsible decision but if it is the law, I will agree to follow it.”

The CDC on Tuesday changed its guidance for schools, recommending everyone over the age of 2 — regardless of their vaccination status — wear masks inside schools. Broward and several other school districts across the country then followed with requiring masks.

But DeSantis argued that the federal recommendations were “unscientific” and “inconsistent.”

State Republican leaders backed DeSantis, as the party has doubled down on resisting federal public health recommendations.

“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 keeping with Florida values,” state House Speaker Chris Sprowls said in a statement. “Governor DeSantis recognizes that parents are in the best position to make choices for their children.”

His decision was rebuked by Democrats and public health experts, who argued children younger than 12 remain vulnerable as long as they are not able to get inoculated. Less than a third of 12-to-17-year-olds have been vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers called the executive order “appalling,” considering Florida ranks No. 1 for new cases.

“Young children cannot be vaccinated,” she tweeted. “Masks are crucial for keeping schools safe and they work best if everyone wears one.”

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor in 2022, accused DeSantis of being dictatorial for threatening to withhold funds from schools that don’t comply.

“Ron DeSantis is willing to defund our schools to get his way,” she tweeted. “This is the stuff of dictators. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

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