Florida board okays sanctions for 8 school districts over mask rules

The districts have 48 hours to comply with state instructions to let parents decide on masks.
Students arrive at Leto High School for the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, Tuesday, August 10, 2021 in Tampa.
Students arrive at Leto High School for the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, Tuesday, August 10, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 7, 2021|Updated Oct. 7, 2021

Eight Florida school districts should face funding cutbacks equivalent to their school board members’ salaries for their continued hard line on student masking, the State Board of Education agreed Thursday.

At an emergency meeting, the board unanimously backed education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s move to employ the sanctions, if necessary, as a way to compel districts to follow instructions by the state health and education departments in matters of COVID-19 prevention.

The eight counties will have 48 hours to demonstrate they will come into compliance with the state orders before the monthly penalties are imposed.

Those instructions, which conflict with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allow parents full discretion in deciding whether a student should wear a mask. More recently, the state’s surgeon general also gave parents the right to decide if children without symptoms should participate in quarantines after exposure to COVID-19.

While a dozen districts defied the state’s instructions on masking initially, several — including Hillsborough County — have backed down in recent weeks, leaving eight in conflict with the state: Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach. These districts typically require medical documentation before parents can opt out of the masking rules on behalf of their children.

In Hillsborough, School Board members voted 6-1 Tuesday night to remove the medical documentation requirement, on the recommendation of superintendent Addison Davis.

Related: Hillsborough schools soften mask mandate

Before voting on Thursday, the State Board took comments by phone from members of the public who, for the most part, complained about the masking requirements in their county schools. Some said they showed up at their local school board meetings to protest and were thrown out.

The prospect of sanctions got the attention of the Biden White House, where officials created a grant program to reimburse those school districts for the amount they might lose.

Alachua and Broward, which already are being fined based on a state action in August, were the first two districts to apply successfully for federal aid. The penalties that were imposed Thursday include an additional $147,000 in Alachua and $420,000 in Broward, which is the amount of their federal grant awards.

No amounts were given for the other districts. If the state uses the same process it used with Alachua and Broward, they will be asked to gather payroll information on their school board members and send it to the state so their fines can be calculated.

Corcoran called the federal action “egregious” and said the grants encourage school districts to violate Florida law. “Floridians should be offended by the Biden administration’s use of federal taxes in an attempt to make the enforcement of Florida’s laws so ineffective,” he said.

Florida’s decision drew an immediate reaction from U.S. Deputy Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum, who sent a letter to Corcoran challenging the sanctions’ legality.

Rosenblum wrote that, with limited exceptions, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act does not allow states to consider the existence of federal payments when they determine how much aid they will award to a local school district.

Alachua school superintendent Carlee Simon also issued a response, saying in a statement: “Despite the state board’s action, Alachua County Public Schools will maintain its current masking protocols. We believe those protocols comply with state law and our constitutional obligation to provide students with a safe learning environment.”

Superintendents from the eight counties were allowed Thursday to state their positions. One by one, they described the extraordinary increase in COVID-19 case reports in August as the delta variant swept through the state.

“Only eight days into the school year, we reported 492 COVID-19 cases,” said Duval superintendent Diana Greene. “At less than one week, we were already at 19 percent of the total cases reported for the entire 2020-21 school year.”

State resources were not sufficient to respond. “The Florida Department of Health’s inability to conduct timely case investigations had a direct impact on the spread of the virus throughout our schools, ultimately jeopardizing the health and safety of students and employees,” Greene said. After two weeks of school, she added, 10 employees had lost their lives.

The superintendents said they listened to local medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in formulating their policies.

They denied showing any disrespect for parental rights, as state leaders have alleged.

“Let’s be clear. We are in complete support of parents having individual rights and freedoms,” said Leon County superintendent Rocky Hanna, who also offered to give up his salary if his district is penalized.

They also said the recent actions by Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis mark an abrupt shift from last year, when the state and districts worked together to mitigate the spread of the virus through the schools.

“We’ve been partners at every turn and it has worked,” said Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who also quoted the poet Maya Angelou. “When we know better, we must do better,” he said.

But while the superintendents insisted that masking has helped them contain the spread of the virus, Corcoran cited statistics showing there is only about 2 percentage points’ difference between school districts with opt-out provisions for masks and those without them when it comes to the decrease in COVID-19 cases over the last several weeks.

“And so, unsurprisingly, as we have said all along, we are seeing no impact of forced masks in the schools,” he said.

The question of masking orders has been fought on several legal fronts, and parents have filed lawsuits on both sides of the issue.

Six of the districts that came before the board on Thursday are parties to a challenge at the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings. The six — Alachua, Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade, Leon and Orange — want the most recent health department rule on face coverings to be declared an “invalid exercise of delegated legislative authority.”

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