That reality is driven home by the latest machinations involving one of these officials, Carlee Simon, the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools. Simon is moving ahead with mandatory masking, despite DeSantis’s executive order empowering the state to nix funds to punish school boards that implement mask mandates.
Simon told “Morning Joe” on Tuesday morning that she’d received a letter from the state commissioner of education declaring that continuing the mask mandate would indeed put state funding at risk, and demanding a response in writing.
I’m now told that Simon’s response will be unequivocal: She will keep the mask mandate, even if it provokes retaliatory action.
“The superintendent does not plan to change course,” Jackie Johnson, the director of communications for the school district, told me.
Johnson suggested that the state is likely to make good on its threat. She forwarded me the letter from the state commissioner of education, and it declares:
Depending on the facts presented, I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the Superintendent and all the members of the school board.
That’s bad, though it might not put funding for education directly at risk. What’s worse, though, is the nature of the choice that’s being forced on these local officials beyond the threat of losing their own salaries.
Most obviously, Simon should not be put in the position of choosing between protecting the health of children and employees and avoiding the wrath of the governor — not to mention the Trumpist movement — at a moment when officials are desperate to combat a covid surge.
You might argue that this is the nature of the job, since the state oversees and has control over school boards. But in this case, there’s plainly no genuine public health or public interest rationale at work.
What’s more, even the state’s superficial rationale is highly dubious. As the education commissioner’s letter to Simon notes, the state’s objection to the mask mandate is that it doesn’t allow parents or legal guardians to opt out of the mask mandate.
Johnson, the spokesperson for the school district, argued to me that the current mask mandate does allow parents to opt out.
For instance, she said, a child can go maskless if he or she has a “form signed by a qualified medical professional.” Another option, she noted, would be for parents to make use of a private school voucher that DeSantis himself has touted for parents who feel that mask directives have become “harassment.”
But the rub of the matter is this. As the education commissioner’s letter notes, under DeSantis’s executive order, a parent or legal guardian who wants to opt out of the mask mandate is not required to present medical documentation to opt out.
This is what is being violated. So a key aspect of this dispute is over whether parents can send their kids to school maskless without any medical reason for it.
Johnson allowed that some parents in the district were angry about the prospect of being deprived of the freedom to send kids maskless with no medical rationale. “However, that has certainly been outnumbered by the many positive responses that we’ve gotten from people who are very happy about the mask mandate,” Johnson told me.
Obviously when there are deep differences over whether it’s acceptable to require masks under any circumstances, one side or the other will end up angry over the decision. But in this case, DeSantis is seeking to hamper the ability of local officials to implement mandates that they deem necessary to protect their own people — and that doctors and experts are advising they implement — even as all manner of other public health mandates are seen as unproblematic.
It’s an absurd bind for well-meaning public officials to be placed in. And it’s largely happening because of the arbitrary preoccupations of Donald Trump his movement.