In a round table discussion Monday, which was not disclosed to the public ahead of time, Gov. Ron DeSantis met with a group of supporters to discuss, and heavily criticize, the idea of wearing face coverings in Florida schools.
“I think our fear is that seeing some of those rumblings, that there be an attempt from the federal level or even some of these organizations to try to push for mandatory masking of school children,” DeSantis said. “It should not be mandated. I know our Legislature feels strongly about it, such that if you started to see a push from the feds or some of these local school districts, 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 to be suffering under these masks during the school year.”
That federal “push” was made Tuesday when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status. It’s the same recommendation made eight days earlier by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
News4Jax checked with school districts in Northeast Florida following the CDC’s recommendation. A spokesperson for the St. Johns County School District said there hasn’t been a discussion yet about whether its mask policy should be updated with the new CDC recommendation.
A spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools told News4Jax: “The district is in consultation with the Florida Department of Health-Duval this week to review the new guidance from the CDC and discuss health and safety guidelines going into the new school year.”
DeSantis has said that he will fight any move on the federal or local level to impose a mask requirement in schools. After the CDC’s call for universal masking for schools, DeSantis’ office released a statement saying parents should have the right to decide whether their children wear masks at school:
“Governor DeSantis believes that parents know what’s best for their children; therefore, parents in Florida are empowered to make their own choices with regards to masking. Experts have raised legitimate concerns that the risks of masking outweigh the potential benefits for children, because masking children can negatively impact their learning, speech, emotional and social development, and physical health (e.g., infections from bacteria that’s often found on masks, difficulty breathing while exercising in masks, etc.) Fortunately, the data indicate that COVID is not a serious risk to healthy children, which is why schools in most countries were among the first institutions to reopen. At the end of the day, the Governor trusts parents to weigh the risks and benefits and make the best choices for their kids.”
One of the governor’s guests at Monday’s roundtable, professor of Medicine at Stanford University Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, has consistently criticized the use of face masks and lockdowns. During the panel discussion, Bhattacharya claimed that masks don’t effectively slow the spread of COVID-19 and that they cause developmental harm to children, although he cited no scientific studies to that effect.
“The correlational evidence, I think, is mixed, and there’s literally no randomized evidence whatsoever for these masks in schools,” Bhattacharya said.
News4Jax put those claims past some independent doctors who described the roundtable’s views as fringe science.
“Those two opinions that you just cited are far outside of what the majority of scientists, at this point, believe about what the literature shows us. So, first, masks are effective at, you know, stopping and slowing the spread of respiratory illness, including COVID-19,” said Dr. Jennifer Cowart, an internal medicine physician. “That roundtable discussion was all people who kind of have the same opinion. There weren’t any real, differing opinions there, so we didn’t really get a very balanced view, in my opinion, of the issue.”
Los Angeles-based clinical psychiatrist Dr. Mark McDonald also blamed masks, in part, for an increase in depression and anxiety in children.
“Mental illness is a catastrophe in this country, primarily due to lockdowns in children, but the masks are not helping,” McDonald said. “The masks are nothing more than a symbol of fear and anxiety.”
The CDC, the World Health Organization and the mainstream medical community agree that face coverings help decrease the spread of diseases, including COVID-19.
“All the pediatricians I know are weighing all the risks and benefits of everything here, and they’re saying, ‘We need to have masks on our kids,’” Cowart said.
Kaysyn Jones, a senior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, said she’ll be wearing a mask whether they’re required or not -- even though she’s been vaccinated.
“If we don’t make good choices now, like, my generation is going to turn out a generation full of orphans full of traumatized kids who’ve lost family members, especially as the delta variant is more dangerous,” Jones said.
Monday’s panel also included the head of school of Jacksonville Classical Academy.
Similar events in the past have been open to the media and broadcast by The Florida Channel, a state-funded service that covers myriad government meetings. Monday’s panel discussion was recorded by the governor’s staff and posted to DeSantis’ online video-streaming platform of choice, Rumble.
Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the DeSantis administration is increasingly using Rumble as its platform of choice after a previous roundtable discussion event, featuring Bhattacharya, was removed from YouTube.
“We recorded the entire roundtable discussion to post on Rumble so it’s accessible to media and the general public. We generally use Rumble for public videos these days, after experiencing censorship from YouTube several months ago,” Pushaw said in an email to The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Pushaw said DeSantis “is always seeking out perspectives from experts, like Dr. Bhattacharya, on COVID-19 and other pressing issues.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Fried called the roundtable one-sided.
“And look, if he’s not going to come in and he’s not going to have a mask mandate for our state, at least give people the tools to make proper decisions,” Fried said.
Fried also criticized the lack of transparency around the discussion and called on the governor to return to daily reporting of COVID-19 data.
The News Service of Florida and Capitol News Service’s Jake Stofan contributed to this report.