Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the American Legislative Exchange Council Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Credit: Rick Bowmer / AP

As students ready to return to campuses and COVID-19 cases continue to spike, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office on Monday said it would go after the salaries of school leaders if they enforce face mask mandates.

His spokesperson Christiana Pushaw said in a statement the state would “narrowly tailor any financial consequences” to target school leaders that defy the governor’s rules — withholding superintendents’ or school board members’ pay, for example — but protect students and teachers who were not the “decision makers.”

She also called “permissible” the approach taken by superintendents in districts where face masks are required but parents can opt their children out of wearing face coverings.

In Leon County, however, the district will require a doctor’s or a psychologist’s note to opt out of mask wearing. Policies like Leon’s would “violate the spirit” of DeSantis’ July 30 face mask order, Pushaw told The News Service of Florida.

Monday’s statement comes days after the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote DeSantis to say he needs to abandon his “dangerous” rhetoric against face masks in schools and make it clear that “universal masking” on campus reduces COVID-19 illness and protects “face-to-face learning.”

The group, which represents 830 Florida pediatricians, urged DeSantis to revise his public rhetoric about face masks and to stop “ignoring the virus” as public schools in Central Florida and across the state ready to open Tuesday.

The delta variant of the coronavirus, responsible for the surge in COVID-19 cases locally and across Florida, is more of a threat to children, the pediatricians said in their Aug. 6 letter.

“The current state led rhetoric regarding masking is dangerous. The data shows that masks are safe. … There is no report of children getting sick from mask wearing, rather there are thousands of reports of children sick from COVID-19,” the letter said.

“We have officially fallen behind every single state in our response to this virus,” it added. “This is shameful at best, and deadly at worst.”

DeSantis signed an executive order July 30 that said parents could ignore school mask mandates and threatened school districts with a loss of state funding if they adopted them. Last week, the Florida Department of Health followed his order and adopted a new rule that said students could wear face masks as a “mitigation measure” but parents must have an opt-out provision from any face mask mandate.

Monday, Pushaw said the state would seek to “narrowly tailor any financial consequences to the offense committed” rather than take broader action against a school district.

Pushaw also said that the governor’s views on face mask mandates are based on studies that showed such policies made little difference to COVID-19 cases on campuses last year.

Though many experts say face masks helped reduce virus spread in schools, Pushaw noted some studies have concluded they made little difference. “Any assertion that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ in support of school mask mandates is simply inaccurate and misleading,” she wrote.

“If some parents want their children to wear masks, that is their free choice and their right, even if it’s not the same decision Governor DeSantis would make,” she added. “If some parents feel their children are struggling with masks, which many do (especially kids with special needs and English Language Learners) then those parents have the right to send their kids to school without masks.”

The pediatric group is also wrong to claim the governor is ignoring the virus, Pushaw said, adding that is a view based on “biased reporting and critiques from his political opponents.”

Story by Leslie Postal, South Florida Sun Sentinel. Steven Lemongello of the Sentinel staff contributed to this story.