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Feds to investigate Florida education department over mask rules

The U.S. Department of Education says Florida’s ban on mask mandates could be violating the rights of disabled students.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, seen here at a briefing earlier this year, was notified Friday that federal officials are investigating his department. In a letter, the U.S. Department of Education said it will investigate whether Florida's ban on mask mandates prevents disabled children from safely returning to school.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran, seen here at a briefing earlier this year, was notified Friday that federal officials are investigating his department. In a letter, the U.S. Department of Education said it will investigate whether Florida's ban on mask mandates prevents disabled children from safely returning to school. [ Tribune News Service ]
Published Sep. 10
Updated Sep. 11

President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday initiated an investigation into whether Florida’s ban on mask mandates violates the civil rights of students with disabilities.

The investigation launched by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights comes after a weeks-long battle between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Biden administration over the hot-button public health issue that has quickly morphed into a political fight.

The federal civil rights investigation aims to determine whether the state’s ban on mask mandates — a key portion of the governor’s pandemic response — restricts students who are protected under federal law from discrimination based on their disabilities to access a free, appropriate public education.

DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw responded to the federal investigation in a defiant tone on social media.

“Bring it,” Pushaw posted on Twitter minutes after the Biden administration made the announcement. “Florida and @GovRonDeSantis will continue to stand up for parents’ rights against federal government overreach.”

Issue of students with disabilities and equal education

The department is “concerned” that Florida’s policy, which requires public schools to allow parents to opt out of mask mandates, may be “preventing schools in Florida from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal education opportunity to students with disabilities who are at a heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

“In this investigation, particular attention will be given to whether the Florida Department of Education may be preventing schools from making individualized assessment about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person [....],” the department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg wrote to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Friday.

A week and a half ago, the federal agency opened investigations in five other states over the same issue but Florida was not part of the group because court orders were blocking the state from enforcing DeSantis’ July 30 order prohibiting public school districts from mandating masks.

At the time, the department said a federal investigation could be launched in states if those court orders were to be reversed.

Legal battles abound

On Friday, a Tallahassee-based appeals court ruled the state could continue enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools while a legal challenge continues. As a result, the Biden administration followed through with its promise and launched a probe into the matter.

The underlying case was brought forward by a group of parents who contend DeSantis overreached his legal authority when he issued an executive order that aimed to bar strict mask mandates in schools.

It is one of several legal challenges the DeSantis administration has faced over its policy as 13 school districts in the state defy his edict.

Parents of students with disabilities in eight Florida school districts, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Miami-Dade, have sued DeSantis, Corcoran and the Florida Department of Education in Miami federal court, contending that DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting districts from mandating that students wear masks puts their children at risk in schools amid the coronavirus pandemic and violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The case is pending.

The Hillsborough County School Board voted Thursday to extend its mask mandate to Oct. 15, citing numbers that indicate COVID-19 cases in district schools had dropped since the requirement started on Aug. 19. Meanwhile, the Pasco board opted this week to stay with its voluntary masking policy, and officials in that district showed no inclination to make changes any time soon.

Thirteen districts in the mix

The state also has begun withholding funds equivalent to the monthly salaries of school board members in Broward and Alachua counties and is investigating other districts for non-compliance. Broward and Alachua, which includes Gainesville, were the first two school districts in the state to mandate masks.

Some of the districts defying the state’s mask order include Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval, which along with Broward, are the largest districts in the state and serve more than a majority of all public school children in Florida.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokeswoman Jacquelyn Calzadilla said Friday the state’s largest district has no immediate plans to abandon its current mask protocol.

“We will stay the course and continue assessing conditions on a weekly basis in consultation with our medical health experts,” she said. “The mask mandate remains in place for now.”

If more districts are ultimately penalized by the state, financial penalties are likely to be offset by federal dollars. President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday announced the creation of a new grant designed specifically to cover any fines or withholding of funds that school districts face because of their mask rules.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki highlighted that commitment on Friday, following the appeals court ruling on the mask mandate case.

“One of the steps the president announced yesterday is that we have the funding the resources and the intention of having the back of school leaders in school districts, superintendents and others who do the right thing by students, and that includes putting in place mask requirements, and other requirements that will keep them safe,” Psaki said.

McClatchy White House correspondent Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

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