AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The 2021 school year was supposed to mark a return to normal for American schoolchildren, and it's turning out to be anything but. As the delta variant rips through the country, more and more kids are getting sick, and that's complicating back-to-school plans for educators and students alike. And it's turning into a political battle. In Florida, where many school superintendents want masks, the state's governor, Ron DeSantis, has issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools. Carlee Simon is superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, where, despite the governor's order, students will be required to wear masks for the first two weeks of the school year. She joins us now to talk more about that decision. Welcome.
CARLEE SIMON: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Governor Ron DeSantis said earlier this week that the state board of education could withhold superintendents' salaries specifically, if they require masks in schools. Is this something that you're worried he'll go through with as you've been making the policy for your school?
SIMON: So I certainly have major concerns with any discussion about a governor using his authority and power to cut funding because there's local control and a board and the superintendent are making local decisions. I think that's problematic on so many levels. If the funding gets cut, we will find a way to move forward. I've had actually many people from around the world contact me about the cut in funding and how they would resolve that issue.
CORNISH: Are you saying people are calling you from around the world to offer you guys money if he goes through with this?
SIMON: So there have been multiple people reaching out, wanting to start GoFundMe pages. I've had individuals who I understand are already fundraising some sort of - in the event superintendents and boards have their funding cut, we're going to take care of it. We've obviously heard from President Biden also addressing something in this area. And I believe that there's a lot of people who are watching, and they're concerned, and they don't want people to let go of their principles because they're worried about money.
CORNISH: So just to understand how you all were thinking about this, the school board voted unanimously for this two-week mask requirement. What was the reasoning behind the vote? How was this articulated?
SIMON: Well, so our community - we have the University of Florida anchored pretty much right in the center of our county. And so with UF, we have, you know, a very prestigious medical school with experts in multiple fields that relate to the public health aspect, whether it's medical doctors to epidemiologists and public health experts. We had a large presentation with multiple perspectives addressing what this impact of the delta variant would have on our community. And honestly, you couldn't sit and listen to these experts discuss the complexities in where we were - really, we're just at the beginning of the surge.
CORNISH: But we've also seen school board meetings across the country that don't end in this way - right? - where people actually do vigorously argue against these kinds of requirements. Did you have that kind of pushback?
SIMON: We certainly had that type of pushback from members of the community. There are a group of people who are very much not convinced or swayed by the data that's presented. They are very much focused on their own personal freedoms and liberties. Our board is much more focused on making sure that we can have in-person education for all students, and they are data-driven decision-makers. And the board, which was - you know, they are elected by the community. They voted unanimously to align with the medical experts. This information is not based on ideology. It's based on science.
CORNISH: What are the options for parents who do oppose the requirement?
SIMON: So there's - you know, there's multiple choices that are available. So we have a situation where within our own district, a person can choose to do our e-school option, so you can stay home, and we have an online delivery model of instruction. You can get a medical exemption if you have a medical provider, a doctor, who says that you do have a medical need that would allow you to be exempt from wearing the mask. And then the governor ended up providing - and we do appreciate - the opportunity to use a HOPE Scholarship voucher for individuals who do not want to have a medical exemption or can't get a medical exemption and do not want to wear the mask. So they can go to a private school or a neighboring school district that has a mask optional. We also are arguing that individuals who are at our neighboring counties that have a mask optional but would want a mask mandatory - they could utilize that to come and go to school in our school district if they would like to have the mandatory.
CORNISH: So it sounds like if you're not wearing a mask in those two weeks, you're walking the halls somewhere else or learning at home.
SIMON: Yes. And we do have - we have a few parents - I'd say we're, like, less than five families - where they don't like any of those options, and they are coming every single day and trying to essentially have the policy change. And we send them home and tell them, you know, you need to be masked if you would like to be on campus. We want them on our campuses, but this is what needs to happen.
CORNISH: Do you have parents who are coming to you saying, I don't believe there should be any kind of mask requirement because I don't think that the risks are as high as you're saying.
SIMON: Yes. So I have parents who definitely don't believe that the risks are as high, or they believe that they will take their chances. I've heard that some believe that they are protected by their faith. And that's fine, but not everybody sees it through that perspective. And so I am concerned with families who've decided that what works for them must work for everyone else in their accepting of, you know, the loss that may occur, whether it's within their family or within someone else's family.
CORNISH: Well, thank you so much for speaking with us, and best of luck with the start of this school year.
SIMON: Thank you.
CORNISH: That's Alachua County Public School Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "THE AWAKENING OF A WOMAN (BURNOUT)")
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