St. Johns school board member: ‘We have been handcuffed’ by DeSantis mask order

St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson and St. Johns County School Board Chairman Patrick Canan. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – St. Johns County School Board Chair Patrick Canan expressed frustration at the end of a sometimes testy board meeting Tuesday that included hours of public comment over mandating masks in school.

Although the issue of masks wasn’t on the agenda and no action was taken, Canan said that might not have been the case if it wasn’t for an executive order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that threatened to withhold funding if school districts issued mask mandates for students as the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continues to skyrocket.

Instead, when the school year starts on Aug. 16, masks in St. Johns County schools will be optional and highly recommended.

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“In my opinion, this is a decision that should be made at the local level because we have local input, we have our own hospitals, we know our hospital levels, we have a health department, but instead, we’ve been restricted by the state government from doing what we may otherwise not do,” Canan said. “Those of you that disagree with the governor, your beef is in Tallahassee because we have been handcuffed.”

The school board heard from both sides of the mask issue Tuesday.

Parents and doctors voiced their belief that the district has an obligation to protect children by issuing a mask mandate as the number of COVID-19 cases reaches record levels. Then there were those on the other side who questioned the effectiveness of masks and said any mandate would impede their right to chose what is right for their children.

DeSantis has said masks can have negative effects on students’ development.

Some school districts across the state, like that in Duval County, have found a way around the order by requiring masks but offering parents the chance to opt out. Others have outright defied the order and issued mandates.

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With approval from DeSantis, Florida’s Board of Education last week approved a response in the form of an emergency rule that will make private school vouchers available to parents who say a public school district’s mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children.

St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson and Canan concluded Tuesday that the best thing for the district to do is comply with the emergency order and focus on other coronavirus mitigation strategies that are approved like frequent cleaning and quarantines for students who may have been exposed to the virus.

“Despite all the differences in opinions of what’s right and what’s wrong, I believe that we should follow the executive order because I don’t think we have any choice,” Canan said, adding the order restricts the district’s ability to listen to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is who this state has elected as our governor, and I have to respect his decision, respect his opinion.”

RELATED | Pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations spike in Florida

Board member Beverly Slough said the district is just following the advice of its counsel but added she supports the order from DeSantis.

“We in Florida, in the United States, we like our independence, we like to make our own decisions and especially in regard to our children so, I believe that we’ve gone the right direction in allowing parents the choice to mask or unmask their children,” Slough said. “Come to school, go to virtual whatever the choice is this best for the family involved.”

Forson added that it will continue to monitor the number of cases in the county and adjust plans as necessary.

As of last week, St. Johns County had 1,740 new cases with a positivity rate of over 24%.

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