Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday afternoon held a roundtable discussion about masks at schools, but he didn’t invite or include traditional public school educators, even as the new public school year looms and families and educators face decisions on mask-wearing.
In addition to health officials on the roundtable, the participants included two nontraditional public charter schools and a rising senior from a Tallahassee private school. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran was not a panelist.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said she was unaware of the roundtable on Monday afternoon, but would look into it further. That day, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents held a phone conference with Commissioner Corcoran to discuss the coming school year.
The situation became unusual because the media was not allowed to attend the roundtable, despite major concerns across the state about how to approach the next school year, including the mask issue.
The roundtable also was not published on the usual Florida Channel. But it was posted Monday on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Rumble account. (It was not visible today.) Usually, the governor’s Facebook has been used to post videos.
At the roundtable, the governor said that, “At this point, our school districts have proposed ‘mask optional. I think our fear is, is that seeing some of those rumblings, if there’d be an attempt from the federal level or even some of these organizations to try to push for mandatory masking of schoolchildren.”
“So our view is this should absolutely not be imposed, should not be mandated. And I know our Legislature feels strongly about this. Such that, if we started to see push from the feds or some of these local school districts, I know that they’re interested in even a special session to be able to provide protections for parents and kids who want to breathe free.”
Attending the discussion was Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, one of three doctors who participated in earlier DeSantis roundtables on COVID policy. None is an epidemiologist, and YouTube removed a video of the first discussion because it violated company policy on medical misinformation.
The governor’s daily schedule, released at 9:20 p.m., well after the roundtable wound down, reflected separate interviews with Bhattacharya and representatives of Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank with connections to the DeSantis administration.
“Dr. Bhattacharya had requested this interview a couple of months ago for a documentary he is working on. FGA had also requested an interview for a video series they are doing. They’ve interviewed several other governors on policy areas such as employment and workforce, education, law enforcement, etc.,” DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said via email on Tuesday.
“With the recent uptick in discussion around mask mandates in schools this upcoming academic year, and indications that the federal government might advise masking children as young as 3 years old, Gov. DeSantis wanted to exchange perspectives on this topic with experts like Dr. Bhattacharya and other medical professionals, as well as a concerned parent, student, and (charter) school administrator,” Pushaw said.
As for the lack of notice:
“It wasn’t really meant to be a media event, although we know it’s of interest to the media — that’s why we sent you guys the link to the transcript,” Pushaw said. “It was supposed to be more of a discussion between the governor and these stakeholders, the doctors as well as the mom and kid and the (charter) school director.”
Charter schools are public schools that have more flexibility and for the most part they are run by private entities. They are required to administer statewide exams. However, in Florida and elsewhere, charters and traditional schools have clashed.
The Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union, was not aware of the roundtable on Monday, said FEA president Andrew Spar.
“If he (DeSantis) was intending for it to be a part of the discourse across the state, and a part of the conversation…I think he would have made it a very public event,” Spar said.
–Michelle Brown, with Deputy Editor Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix