▶ Watch Video: School mask debate rages in Florida as COVID cases surge

A 12-year-old girl is advocating for other children, urging her Florida school district implement masks in schools. Lila Hartley wrote a letter to the Duval County school board and superintendent last week, saying she is vaccinated, but she is concerned about her 10-year-old brother, who is ineligible at his age.

“Right now, especially as the Delta variant is surging, hospitalizing and killing so many kids, I really believe that masks should be required,” Lila wrote.

In her letter, Lila said she is “so worried” her brother could “go to school one day and the next day be dying in the hospital.” 

“I don’t know what I would do if he died, especially if it was caused by a place that means so much to him, school,” the seventh-grader wrote. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order last week that bars school districts in the state from requiring students to wear masks in school. He also said the State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members who violate the law. 

Doctors have reported an uptick in child COVID-19 cases and say kids are getting sicker with this variant. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 93,824 child COVID-19 cases were reported between July 29 and August 5, with children representing 15% of the weekly reported cases in the U.S. 

Many children cannot get vaccinated, and experts say the best way to prevent spread is for the adults around them to receive the vaccine, and for the continued use of masks.

After Lila’s letter went viral, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services invited her to a meeting on Monday. Commissioner Nikki Fried said her nieces and nephews and stepchildren have similar concerns and that she is proud of Lila for speaking out on behalf of so many kids across the state.

Lila told Fried she has friends who have caught COVID-19. “One of my friends was so close to being able to get their vaccine and then they got sick,” she said. She wants kids to know masks help everyone – vaccinated or unvaccinated. 

Fried, a Democrat and 2022 gubernatorial candidate, said school districts shouldn’t focus on the political and financial ramifications when deciding whether or not to follow DeSantis’ order. “We will get your back because you are doing what’s right for our children,” she said.

She said she believes Desantis’ order is unconstitutional. “This schtick is unacceptable — this authoritarian ‘It’s his way or the highway,’ and at the expense of our children,” Fried said. “You’re not hurting the school board members by taking away funding. You’re hurting Lila and her friends.” 

“I need our school boards to understand that you’re making a decision whether to follow the governor and to put political and potential ramifications on the line or do what’s best for the health and safety of our children,” Fried said.

Lila said she received a response to her letter from a Duval County School Board member. “They said they are taking this seriously and listening to the science,” she said. 

Duval County Public Schools put out a “Student Mask/Facial Covering Opt-Out Form” on Friday. The school said facial coverings are strongly recommend, but “parents who would like to opt their child out of wearing a face covering can do so.”

The decision came after the school board held a public meeting last Tuesday, where for two hours, dozens expressed their opinions on masks, CBS Jacksonville affiliate WJAX reports.

Ahead of the meeting, a rally was held outside the school system’s headquarters. “If they’re going into the school system with kids who are unmasked, they’re sending their children into a toxic swamp of COVID,” said Dr. Jeff Goldhagen, the former director of the Duval County Health Department. 

“We need to hunker down. We shouldn’t even be starting school right now. Last year, we were pulling back when we weren’t even seeing cases closes to this,” Jaimie Shires, a parent of two, said.

Still, some advocated for no masks in schools. “The masks are hurting our children. They are causing the inability to socialize with one another,” Melissa Bernhart said.

Another county has gone against DeSantis’ executive order completely. In an 8-to-1 vote, the Broward County School Board decided it would require masks and approved filing legal action to challenge Florida’s ban, CBS Miami reported. School board chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said she did not want to put children’s lives at risk.