Florida on Wednesday escalated its war with school districts over mask mandates when a newly appointed, controversial surgeon general issued a rule making it even harder for schools to enforce them while also setting what experts called a dangerous new quarantine policy.
Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who was appointed on Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, instituted his first rule Wednesday to give parents “sole discretion” over whether their child wears a mask. The change, as reported by the Miami Herald, will also allow students who come in contact with the virus to continue attending class if they remain asymptomatic.
In addition to representing just the latest chapter of pandemic recklessness in a state that has often set the international bar, experts said, the policy also short-circuited a legal challenge to an already-risky policy, effectively trolling parents in the state.
“Essentially, when you have one losing, unlawful policy being challenged, you withdraw it and put in another losing, unlawful policy,” said Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown University who specializes in public health and is also a Daily Beast contributor. “It is literally a political ploy.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis told The Daily Beast that “back-to-back legal victories for Florida parents’ rights were conveniently ignored by many of the governor’s critics, because they disregard facts that do not suit their preferred narratives.” She also pointed to a Wednesday press conference from the governor.
The Surgeon General’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
During the Wednesday press conference, DeSantis touted the new rule and went after critics who want to follow public-health measures.
“Quarantining healthy students is incredibly damaging for their educational advancement. It’s also incredibly disruptive for families, all throughout the state of Florida,” DeSantis said.
He added that the state is going to be following a “symptoms-based approach” for a deadly disease that often does not produce symptoms.
The rule’s implementation gives the state another tool to push back on parents and schools worried about mass death, which is already spiraling at districts nationwide this year. Among other things, it forced the dismissal of the case brought by five school districts challenging a ban on mask mandates by DeSantis—days before arguments were set to begin.
“I don’t see any wiggle room whatsoever in doing anything other than dismissing this case,” Judge Brian Newman said during a Wednesday hearing.
The case is separate from one brought by parents who have sued for school mask mandates, whose initial win was stayed as DeSantis lobbies an appeal.
Some of the districts in the case at issue Wednesday—Alachua, Miami-Dade, Broward, Leon, and Orange—told the Herald they would consider whether to challenge the new rule, but they did acknowledge the political elephant in the room. “It’s just political maneuvering to change the rules in the middle of the game,” Leon County Schools spokesman Chris Petley said.
Meanwhile, parents actually dealing with sending their kids to school in a state that accounts for a lion’s share of national daily COVID-19 deaths were left reeling from the latest anti-science move from on high.
Amalia Fernandez, a mom whose two daughters attend Henry S. West Laboratory public elementary school in Coral Gables, said both her kids are currently at home after coming into contact with a positive case. Her fourth-grader went into a 10-day quarantine last Friday after being in close contact with a school staffer who tested positive, and her kindergartner was placed into quarantine Wednesday after coming into contact with a student who was exposed to a positive case, she said.
“As a mom working remotely from home, it is difficult having them here, but as a mom concerned about their health, I prefer to have them at home,” Fernandez told The Daily Beast. “I think it is stupid and very regressive to not place kids into quarantine if they have been exposed. I want my girls and other children to be protected and safe. If that means quarantining my child even if they have been minimally exposed, I will do it.”
The new rule by DeSantis’ recently appointed surgeon general is just another example of the governor politicizing the health and safety of public school children, she said.
“He is going to win certain voters, but he will also lose many others,” Fernandez added. “DeSantis putting everybody at risk is a never-ending story.”
The move marks Ladapo’s first major act as surgeon general, an indication he plans to instill his skepticism toward masks in policy even as the state leads the United States in daily COVID-19 deaths and ranks second-highest in cases, per The New York Times. Among other highlights, Ladapo wrote in an April Wall Street Journal op-ed that “mandating masks may help in some settings, but masks are not the panacea officials have presented them as,” decrying them in a Journal op-ed last October titled “Masks Are a Distraction from the Pandemic Reality.”
After being appointed Tuesday, he also suggested vaccines were somehow getting too much hype as a safety measure. “It’s been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless,” he said.
The saga marks the continuation of Florida’s insistence on regulating how localities address COVID-19, even as Gov. DeSantis says the choice lies with the public. The governor signed legislation earlier this summer banning mask and vaccine mandates, warning last week of a $5,000-per-violation fine if a local government employee was required to show proof of vaccination.
Dr. Jill Roberts, a University of South Florida epidemiology professor, told The Daily Beast the new policy was not appropriate for two reasons.
“We are just weeks away from a vaccine for children and it makes sense to revisit the policies after vaccinating kids,” Roberts said. “The Delta variant is clearly waning, so why increase the risk of spread in children, allowing it to resurge, or allowing the next mutation to occur?”
Cutting off the only mitigation measures—masks and isolation—still in place at a critical moment of the pandemic is foolhardy, Roberts added.
“Social distancing is impossible with full schools, and improving ventilation is cost-prohibitive, so it is unclear why it would make sense to remove them at this time,” Roberts said. “There has been no indication whatsoever that masks are impeding learning, so again it is unclear what benefit occurs by changing this policy, while the potential to do harm is evident.”
DeSantis has also shot down counties that have tried to implement their own mask mandates, such as Alachua, while the state’s education department has withheld the salaries of school officials who have continued to enforce a mask mandate.
Meanwhile, even as he purports to back vaccines, DeSantis has continued to pal around with those skeptical toward COVID-19 safety measures, shots included.
He held a roundtable discussion in April that included Dr. Scott Atlas, a former Donald Trump adviser who has previously blasted masks as a safety measure. In July, DeSantis also met with Mark McDonald, a clinical psychiatrist in California who has claimed that to mask and vaccinate children is harmful “physically and psychologically.”
Ladapo also appeared with other doctors at a notorious July 2020 press conference touting the benefits of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for coronavirus. Included in that group: Dr. Stella Immanuel, a woman who, in other settings, has suggested medical ailments are caused by dream-sex with demons and that alien DNA can be used in actual treatment. Also on the scene that day: Dr. Simone Gold, who is now facing charges for participating in the Capital riot.
The DeSantis brain trust notwithstanding, teachers in the classroom were still struggling to make sense of the change on Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m terrified going to school now,” one Miami-Dade middle school teacher, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution, told The Daily Beast. “This will also constantly derail children’s educations. Nothing good can come from this.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story quoted a teacher misstating the details of the new policy. We regret the error.