The Republican politician called out students from Middleton High School in Tampa when they appeared behind him at a press conference wearing the face coverings on Wednesday at the University of South Florida.
“You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please, take them off,” he said as he approached the podium.
“Honestly, it’s not doing anything and we’ve gotta stop with this Covid theatre. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.”
Parents of the scolded students shared their shock at the governor’s outburst and likened him to a bully.
“Stop bullying kids,” Kevin Brown Sr, whose son was masked up on stage, told WFLA.
“His mother tells him to wear the mask. I tell him it’s his choice, so he made that choice and the governor has no right to tell no kid or no one that they can or can’t wear a mask. He doesn’t have that right.”
Another parent, Dawn Marshall, said her son Eric took off his mask per Mr DeSantis’ instructions because he felt pressured.
“It’s just shocking that the governor told these kids: ‘Take off your mask,’” Ms Marshall, who said she urges her son to cover his face at school, told WFLA.
“He pretty much said, ‘Take off your mask, it’s stupid,’ and ‘Take off your mask, your parents don’t matter.’”
Student Kevin Brown Jr said he decided to ignore the governor’s chiding because: “I thought about it and it’s my right to have my mask on.”
Experts likewise condemned Mr DeSantis’ remarks given the recent increase in child Covid cases in Florida, which has recorded more than 5.8 million infections and 70,200 deaths since the onset of the pandemic two years ago.
“Can’t believe @GovRonDeSantis would belittle & bully kids to take off their masks by calling them ‘ridiculous,’” epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted.
“So cold-hearted. More kids have died of #COVID in last 2 months than first 22 months.”
Mr DeSantis, who is seen as a potential rival to Donald Trump for the GOP 2024 presidential nomination, has been a strong opponent of mask mandates in his state.
He signed a 2021 executive order to withhold state funding from schools that introduced mask mandates, and in February said parents should be allowed to sue school districts if they had a child who “was illegally forced-masked this year in Florida”.
The governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, pushed back at critics on Twitter, writing: “I mean, someone had to say it, after 2 years of propaganda that terrified and manipulated young people. Breathe free, feel safe and be happy.”
She also accused those who force children to wear masks of being the real bullies.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham agreed, tweeting: “Someone needs to break through the brainwashing – @GovRonDeSantis did it.”
Mr DeSantis was at the university on Wednesday to announce a $20m programme to create cybersecurity opportunities through the school.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do since I became governor was increase Florida’s competitiveness in terms of workforce education,” Mr DeSantis said.
“And that’s really looking to see what’s in high demand. And that’s really a diverse thing, in terms of what’s going on right now.”
Hillsborough School District said it was proud of the behaviour of the seven pupils who attended the press conference.
“We are excited our students from Middleton High School were highlighted as part of the statewide focus around cyber security education,” said Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Addison Davis.
“Our Cyber Security pathway at MHS has had tremendous success through student’s earning industry certifications, participating in internships and leading the way in computer systems and information technology.
“As always, our students should be valued and celebrated. It is a student and parents’ choice to protect their health in a way they feel most appropriate. We are proud of the manner in which our students represented themselves and our school district.”