The discussion came a day before the CDC reversed course on mask guidelines in schools.
Tampa Bay Times | By Ana Ceballos | July 27, 2021
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday held a closed-door panel discussion in which he doubled down on his opposition to mask-wearing in schools, adding fuel to a debate that has intensified as kids get ready for the start of a new school year in a couple of weeks.
The discussion — which the governor’s office said was meant to be a “closed discussion” — took place a day before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended children and adults wear masks indoors at K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status.
The federal mask guidelines are reversing course on an earlier recommendation suggesting fully vaccinated students and teachers were safe to attend school without a mask.
The federal agency’s recommendations are at odds with the views expressed by DeSantis and the panelists on Monday, including remarks that “masking children is child abuse” and that mask mandate recommendations for children is “virtue signaling” and based on little evidence.
“There is no evidence in places where you say, well, gee, because they didn’t have masks, they had these horrible outcomes. That just didn’t happen,” DeSantis said during Monday’s panel discussion, with four physicians, a parent and a student whose views aligned with the governor’s on masks.
DeSantis’ panel discussion was closed to the public and no reporters were invited. But video of the 50-minute discussion has been posted on Rumble, a video platform that is frequently used by DeSantis and that has emerged as a conservative alternative to YouTube.
On Tuesday, the governor’s office explained that the event was a “closed discussion” that had been built around a previously scheduled interview DeSantis had agreed to do with one of the panelists, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, of Stanford Medical School, who is working on a documentary about the pandemic.
DeSantis’ secretive approach to discussing the public health matter comes as the debate around mask-wearing heats up at school board meetings ahead of the new school year and as the governor emphasizes his willingness to call a special session of the state Legislature to outlaw mask mandates if there is a push by the federal government or school districts to impose them.
“I know our Legislature feels strongly about it,” DeSantis said on Monday. “I know they’re interested in coming in, even in a special session, to be able to provide protections for parents and kids who just want to breathe freely and don’t want suffering under these masks during the school year.”
DeSantis has not formally called for a special session. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, did not immediately respond to text messages seeking comment on a potential legislative session on the matter.
For months, mask-wearing has been a politically divisive issue, particularly in schools, and the federal guidelines issued Tuesday could intensify the debate over whether students need to wear masks inside schools when in-person learning resumes in August for the coming school year.
Many school boards have been facing renewed calls, from both mask proponents and opponents, to consider the issues, as Florida experiences a surge of COVID-19 cases and a slowing vaccination effort.
The issue was expected to surface Tuesday during school board meetings in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. In Broward County, the school board was going to discuss the issue of masks, but the in-person meeting was called off after a group of anti-mask protesters refused to wear masks inside the building.
DeSantis’ administration has been trying to move away from mask mandates for several months. In April, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a memo to school superintendents to request they revise their school district’s mask policy, if they had one, to be voluntary instead of mandatory for the 2021-22 school year.
At the time, Corcoran said data showed districts’ face-covering policies do not impact the spread of the coronavirus; that families and individuals should maintain their ability to make a decision unique to their circumstances; and that broad sweeping mandatory face-covering policies “serve no remaining good at this point in our schools.” But he did not include any data or studies to back up his reasons in the memo.
On Monday, DeSantis reiterated his skepticism about the science behind mask requirements.
“Can they point to something and say, well, gee, the Chicago school district had a mask requirement, this other school district didn’t and look how poorly the school district that didn’t have the mask requirement performed? Are there even examples of that?” DeSantis said.