As It Happens·Q&A

Florida school superintendent says she's received threats from community for defying governor on masks

The superintendent of a public school district in Florida that has instituted a mask mandate says some parents are furious with the decision, and there are a few who "must call our office every 10 minutes." 

'It's a piece of cloth. It will protect people,' says superintendent Carlee Simon

Parents walk their children on the first day of school amid the coronavirus pandemic at West Tampa Elementary School in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

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The superintendent of a public school district in Florida that has instituted a mask mandate says some parents are furious with the decision, and there are a few who "must call our office every 10 minutes." 

Carlee Simon heads the Alachua County Public School District in north central Florida. The board recently passed a mask mandate for the first two weeks of school, defying Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis who, at the end of July, issued an executive order "to protect parents' freedom to choose whether their children wear masks." 

COVID-19 has been surging in Florida, with the state recording a record-breaking 24,869 new cases on Wednesday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Simon spoke with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal about her district's mandate. Here is part of their conversation. 

What made your board vote to defy Ron DeSantis?

We have been watching the COVID data, the positivity rate numbers, and it was becoming concerning over the summer. But really where I think the board paused and decided they needed to pay much more attention to possibly having to change plans, was [when] we had two custodians pass away within two days of each other just over a week ago. 

I myself, as a superintendent, I have the authority to have a mask mandate for all employees and all visitors on our campus. But the next day, the board sat at our board meeting. We had experts from the University of Florida. They came and they shared the current data, as well as what they were seeing in their hospitals, and it was compelling information. 

The board voted unanimously to have a mask mandate for two weeks.

What kind of consequences could the Alachua County public schools face?

The governor had an executive order where he banned mandatory mask mandates and he has threatened to take funding from the schools. 

But that ended up being adjusted to where he is now threatening that he will take money from the superintendent and the board members' paycheques. And just yesterday evening, he realized that he doesn't distribute the paycheques to the superintendents and the board members. So he asked if they would, if this funding was cut, take the pay out of their own accounts — their own paycheques.

We won't do that. If our funding gets cut, we will look at other options and we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

But we won't take money from our students. We know how important it is.

Carlee Simon is superintendent of the Alachua County Public School District in north central Florida. (Submitted by Jackie Johnson)

Personally, could you face consequences?

At this point, I haven't heard him make any threats personally beyond just impacting my salary. I do have, you know, threats from the community — the small community of people who are upset about having masks being required. 

Most of these are people who are right now focusing on their parental freedoms, and some of them are anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. So I do have that. But it is a small group. But they are loud and they are very angry.

I understand you've been called some horrible names and even threatened with legal action.

I have. We have people who have decided that their way of expressing their anger has a lot of profanity attached to it and not always the kindest, as well, to a woman who's running an organization. 

But it's part of the situation and I'm just accepting it and moving through it.

Why do you think there continues to be such vehement opposition to wearing that piece of cloth?

You know there's people who, unfortunately, take opportunities when we are in crises and they manipulate what's going on. 

It's unfortunate because I think that, you know … the children are not really fazed by this. Obviously,there's some level where, you know, children aren't always comfortable. But the kids are behaving normally in school. They're enjoying their day. 

But the parents of these students, who don't want [their kids to wear] masks, they're furious. And we have a few who must call our office every 10 minutes. 

I don't understand because I do think, you know … it's a piece of cloth. It will protect people. And when you hear these stories about people who are on ventilators, I mean … I would take a mask any day.

You've mandated masks. What about vaccines? 

So right now, I'm trying to incentivize vaccines. The fact that the COVID positivity rate is going up, people are getting vaccinated. I think we're having a lot of, "I should have done it sooner vaccines."  

Then, we are incentivizing. We're paying $100 to anyone who's been vaccinated and anyone who gets vaccinated. 

We also are providing COVID leave for anyone who has a breakthrough [case]. And we have had employees. In fact, my staff attorney who has been vaccinated, she wasn't feeling well, she ended up getting tested; she was positive. 

So, she will be covered with our COVID leave because, essentially, our focus is to encourage people to get vaccinated. We want to make sure that happens. 

I'm sure we're going to have to have discussions about mandating vaccines. Our city is having that discussion now and we are watching it. But I think the topic is going to have to come up soon.

Written by Katie Geleff. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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