TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Gov. Ron DeSantis quietly held a roundtable discussion Monday at the Capitol that focused on opposition to mask mandates in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, with DeSantisâ office not giving prior public notice and excluding reporters.
Similar events in the past have been open to the media and broadcast by The Florida Channel, a state-funded service that covers myriad government meetings. Mondayâs panel discussion was recorded by the governorâs staff and posted to DeSantisâ online video-streaming platform of choice, Rumble.READ MORE: Broward Schools Receive $420,957 Grant To Help Offset State COVID Penalties
The event was held as hospitals across the state are seeing sharp increases in COVID-19 patients because of the delta variant of the coronavirus and lagging vaccination rates.
Meanwhile, Florida students are preparing for the school year to begin in a matter of weeks.
âWe in Florida, to this point, our school districts have proposed mask-optional (policies),â DeSantis said in a video of the meeting published on Tuesday. âBut I think our fear is that, seeing some of those rumblings, that thereâd be an attempt from the federal level or even some of these organizations to try to push for mandatory masking of school children.â
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week that President Joe Bidenâs administration is following guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on masks in schools. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has issued guidelines advising that children younger than 12 should wear masks in schools, but the federal government has not mandated that they do so.
DeSantis reiterated Monday that he would support holding a special legislative session to address the issue if the federal government were to require masks for students. The governor invited participants in the roundtable discussion to voice opposition to mask-wearing in schools.
One of the participants was Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University whom the governor called on last year to support his position on keeping schools open for in-person instruction during the pandemic.
âI donât think the delta variant changes the calculus or the evidence in any fundamental way, governor,â Bhattacharya said when asked by DeSantis if the highly transmissible variant should change the stateâs approach to masks in schools.
Cody Meissner, chief of Tufts Universityâs Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease, also participated in the event and argued that wearing a mask is ânot a very effective way of preventing disease.â
Los Angeles-based clinical psychiatrist Mark McDonald argued during the event that âmasking children is child abuse.âREAD MORE: Captured! Patrick McDowell, Man Wanted For Killing Florida Deputy Now In Custody
DeSantis also invited an incoming senior from a Tallahassee private school, the mother of two students at a Tallahassee charter school and head of a Jacksonville charter school to participate.
Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the DeSantis administration is increasingly using Rumble as its platform of choice after a previous roundtable discussion event, featuring Bhattacharya, was removed from YouTube.
âWe recorded the entire roundtable discussion to post on Rumble so itâs accessible to media and the general public. We generally use Rumble for public videos these days, after experiencing censorship from YouTube several months ago,â Pushaw said in an email to The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.
Pushaw said DeSantis âis always seeking out perspectives from experts, like Dr. Bhattacharya, on COVID-19 and other pressing issues.â
The Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation said Tuesday that DeSantisâ exclusion of reporters from Mondayâs event didnât violate Floridaâs Sunshine Law on open government.
âThe constitutional right of access requires meetings of any public body of the executive branch of state government to be open and noticed to the public. If the meeting was just Gov. Ron DeSantis and health experts, this would not necessarily violate the constitutional right of access or Sunshine Law. That said, the Sunshine Law is meant to frustrate all evasive devices,â Virginia Hamrick, a staff attorney with the organization, said in an email to the News Service of Florida.
But Hamrick said DeSantis impeded the publicâs ability to be informed of government actions by excluding the media from attending.
âBy being present at meetings, journalists can inform the public of the governmentâs agenda and decisions. Holding a meeting without notice and without the press makes it more difficult for the public to be informed of and oversee the actions of their government. This is true all of the time, but especially when COVID-19 cases are rising and school districts, teachers and parents must make decisions affecting the health of students and staff,â Hamrick said.
Disclosure: The News Service of Florida is a member of the First Amendment Foundation.MORE NEWS: 50 Years Later, These Disney Employees Still At 'Happiest Place On Earth'
(Â©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Floridaâs Ryan Dailey contributed to this report.)