At least three Florida school districts are defying Gov. Ron DeSantis as they impose mask mandates with some medical exceptions, even as his administration threatens to withhold the pay of superintendents and school board members that go against his orders.
DeSantis’ administration has signaled it intends to follow through with threats to dock the salaries of superintendents and school board members who vote to not give parents the full and unilateral ability to opt their children out of mask mandates. Broward County Public Schools on Tuesday became the third district in the state to show resistance against the governor, joining Alachua County Public Schools and Leon County Public Schools.
“I guess I’ll go to my community to set up a GoFundMe or work at McDonald’s. At least I’ll be able to have a moral conscience and know I didn’t put someone’s life at risk,” Broward County School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood said.
The Florida Department of Education has launched “an investigation of noncompliance” into the school districts of Broward County, Leon County and Alachua County. The three districts drew the ire of the administration for requiring a doctor’s note to allow kids to be exempted from a school’s mask mandate.
The rules imposed by the districts are “inconsistent” with the governor’s orders, and if they remain in place, it could result in the department withholding the salaries of the superintendents and all school board members, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote in letters to the districts on Monday and Tuesday.
“There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children,” Corcoran wrote, adding that the targeted districts will need to remedy the issue to avoid penalties. Leon was given until Wednesday and Alachua until Tuesday to respond. Broward has until Friday to document how it is complying with the governor’s orders.
Tuesday night, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna expanded the mask requirement to all grades, K-12, with an opt-out option for parents, Florida Channel News Manager Theresa Marsenburg reported via Twitter. The change apparently brings Leon County Schools into compliance with the governor’s order.
Broward’s school board on Tuesday voted 8-1 to keep mask mandates with the exception of medical conditions, but state officials did not immediately respond when asked whether Corcoran had threatened to investigate and penalize the board members financially. A final decision on mask wearing will be made by Miami-Dade County Public Schools next week. Both districts revisited their policies in response to a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in Florida, including among children, many of whom are still not eligible for vaccines.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho in a statement Tuesday said he will not be personally influenced by the governor’s threats to dock his pay.
“We have established a process that requires consultation with experts in the areas of public health and medicine. We will follow this process, which has served us well, and then make a final decision,” Carvalho said in a statement. “At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees.”
State softens approach since DeSantis’ order
The sanctions outlined in the letters are a softer approach than what DeSantis had initially backed in a July 30 executive order that said the State Board of Education would have the authority to withhold state funds and declare the district “ineligible for competitive grants” until they comply.
As local district officials opt to defy the governor’s orders, it is not entirely clear whether penalties will vary based on the types of rules districts implement or if the sanctions will pertain only to the salaries of superintendents and school board members.
On Monday, DeSantis’ office said penalties against noncompliant districts will be “narrowly tailored to address the offense committed” and that “children and teachers will not be punished or face adverse consequences for the decisions made by certain school board members and/or superintendents.”
DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, then posted on Twitter that the administration is taking a “targeted” approach to sanctions: “Only the salaries of those superintendents and school board members who intentionally defy the EO [executive order] and the subsequent rules protecting parents’ rights.”
On Tuesday, DeSantis sidestepped questions when asked if withholding state funds from districts was still an enforcement tool that remained on the table, as noted in his executive order.
“What we’re going to do is we’re going to do whatever we can to vindicate the rights of parents and make sure that parents are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the health, education and welfare of their kids and these should not be decreed by the government,” he said during a press conference in Surfside.
In response, the Senate Democratic caucus is asking Florida’s 67 school superintendents to “buck political pressure from the governor and follow the guidance of public health officials.”
“If the governor chooses to defund public education and withhold salaries from educators as punishment for protecting students’ health and safety, we will fill the gap to support them in this fight,” Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, of Plantation, said in a statement that mentioned the caucus’ intention to start a GoFundMe campaign for this purpose.
An avalanche of messages
DeSantis’ public statements on directives against mask mandates in schools have left Floridians with policy whiplash, sowing confusion on what will happen if local district officials defy him.
At first, the governor said he was willing to call a special session of the Legislature to outlaw mask mandates if the federal government or local districts imposed them. But that never came to fruition, even when federal guidelines recommended everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors at K-12 schools and some districts, including Broward County, voted to keep or reinstate masks mandates.
Then, DeSantis issued an executive order directing the departments of education and health to impose rules protecting parents’ right to decide whether their children will be masked in schools. The rules that came following the order said districts would be allowed to impose a mask mandate as long as they allow parents to opt out, and also said parents would be eligible for vouchers if they perceive ‘COVID-19 harassment” against their child in connection to a district’s pandemic rules.
The governor’s executive order also said the State Board of Education would be able to withhold state funds from districts that do not comply and declare them “ineligible for competitive grants” until they abide by the state rules. But now, the governor’s office says noncompliant districts will face sanctions that are “narrowly tailored to address the offense committed.”
The mixed messaging over sanctions comes as Broward County Public Schools and Miami-Dade Public Schools, the state’s two largest school districts, revisit and solidify their masking rules for the upcoming school year.
It also comes amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in Florida that has garnered national attention. Although cases have spiked across all age groups, a Miami Herald analysis of weekly case data revealed that the sharpest increase over the past month has occurred among kids under 12. According to data from the U.S. Health and Human Services, Florida is second only to Texas on both confirmed and suspected pediatric cases of COVID-19. Of the 207 total COVID-19 cases Florida reported on Tuesday, which include both confirmed and suspected infections, 188 were confirmed.
School Board member Dr. Leanetta McNealy in Alachua, one of the counties threatened by the state for being out of compliance, said she did not expect the district to change its position before the 5 p.m. deadline on Tuesday.
“We will not switch. I can only speak from my position. I am not going to switch, and I have three other colleagues who sit with me. … I don’t see any of them wanting to switch, as well,” said McNealy during a virtual press conference hosted by the Florida Democratic Party. “I don’t care what the governor states. I am not going to have on me that we lost one child because of the delta variant.”
Dozens of parents from various parts of the state, including Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, are also trying to challenge the governor’s executive order alleging it is unconstitutional and contending that preventing districts from requiring mask mandates threatens the safety of schools.
A Leon County circuit court judge is scheduled to hear arguments for an emergency motion for an injunction against the executive order on Friday.
White House praises Florida school districts
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday during her briefing that she applauded the school districts in Florida that have stepped up and decided to “do the right thing” to keep schools safe, despite threats from DeSantis to withhold salaries.
“I do want to call out the courage and the boldness of a number of leaders in Florida, including in Miami Dade County, people who are stepping up to do the right thing to protect students and keep schools safe and open,” she said, adding the administration is looking into ways to support those schools potentially affected. She also emphasized that not all of the federal COVID-19 relief funds designated for schools have been distributed by the state.
“I would note what is publicly available and knowable, is that the American Rescue Plan funds that were distributed to Florida to provide assistance to schools have not yet been distributed from the state level. So the question is, why not? And those can be used to cover expenses that come up in this period of time,” said Psaki.
Without naming DeSantis directly, President Joe Biden told members of the press that he thinks it’s “disingenuous” when governors who’ve asked the federal government to stay out of the way of states’ decisions then intervene in school board decisions.
“I find it interesting that some of the very people who are saying that, who hold government positions, are people who are threatening that if a school teacher asks the student if they’ve been vaccinated or if a principal says that, ‘Everyone in my school should wear a mask,’ or if a school board asks for it, that governor will nullify that. That the governor has the authority to say you can’t do that. I find that totally counterintuitive and disingenuous,” he said.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is challenging DeSantis in 2022, has also come out in the defense of superintendents.
“The governor may have been a bully on the playground growing up. He may be able to bully the Legislature. But these superintendents and these school board members are not going to be bullied,” Fried said at a press conference Tuesday. “They are going to do what is right, and the governor is using an almost authoritarian, dictatorship style of threatening our school board members and our superintendents.”
Florida Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., a Republican, said on Tuesday he fully supports the governor if he chooses to withhold funds from school district leaders who made the decision to require masks in their schools, whether or not they’re appointed officials.
“This governor has stood clear from the beginning, has not wavered, that he is going to stand for the freedom of Floridians and as a Legislature we back him up,” said Diaz, adding that DeSantis would be within his right under state statute to impose such a penalty if superintendents were to “violate state law.”
“I hope it does not come to that, but I do think that the governor has to have the tool … and at the end of the day local governments are appendages of the state,” Diaz said.
McClatchy DC reporter Bryan Lowry, Miami Herald reporter Michelle Marchante and the News Service of Florida’s Jim Saunders contributed to this report.