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Florida officials to review showdown with school districts over masks

Education officials will hold a conference call Thursday to consider whether 11 school districts, including the five largest in Florida, are complying with state rules that bar strict mask mandates.
Students and parents made their way to Loretto Elementary School along Loretto Road in August. Students arrived for the first day of the new school year at Loretto Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida's Mandarin neighborhood Tuesday morning, August 10, 2021. With the new surge in COVID-19 infections, the Duval County School Board has adopted a masking policy for students and staff, and parents were not allowed to enter the schools.
Students and parents made their way to Loretto Elementary School along Loretto Road in August. Students arrived for the first day of the new school year at Loretto Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida's Mandarin neighborhood Tuesday morning, August 10, 2021. With the new surge in COVID-19 infections, the Duval County School Board has adopted a masking policy for students and staff, and parents were not allowed to enter the schools.
Published Oct. 5
Updated Oct. 5

TALLAHASSEE — The ball is back in the State Board of Education’s court on the issue of school mask mandates.

After two months of wrangling, the board will hold a conference call Thursday to consider whether 11 school districts, including the five largest in Florida, are complying with state rules that bar strict mask mandates and quarantine protocols.

The state’s position is that parents should have choices within school masking and quarantine rules while districts argue local COVID-19 rules should have limited exceptions to prevent the spread of the virus in school settings.

Related: Meet the Florida school superintendent at the heart of the mask battle

Two days before the meeting, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has found that 10 of the 11 districts are acting in violation of state rules for requiring students to wear masks unless they have a medical exemption and will be recommending that the board financially sanction the districts.

The districts in Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough counties are among the 10 districts that Corcoran has found to be non-compliant with state rules. Corcoran has yet to submit his findings for one district, Indian River, which backed away from an earlier mask mandate two weeks ago.

In letters posted Tuesday, Corcoran said that should the board agree to enforce state rules as he recommends, he will request the state withhold funds in an equal amount to all school board members salaries who voted for a mask mandate.

Corcoran will also request that the state withhold state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds awarded to each districts, targeting a Biden administration initiative that was designed specifically to cover any fines or withholding of funds that school districts face because of their mask rules.

At the meeting, each district will be given time to present their case in a possible attempt to stave off penalties.

“Our district has been allotted five minutes to present our case,” Miami-Dade County Public Schools spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said.

At least one — Sarasota — has suspended its rule and might void it before the meeting. Others could follow suit, while still others, such as Duval County, have held firm that they acted properly.

Some are skeptical that the state will be moved by any testimony that district officials provide Thursday.

“They want what they want, and they’re going to keep moving forward to show that they’re in charge,” said Anna Fusco, the president of the Broward Teachers Union. “They are not going to change their position to do the right thing. They’re going to keep the political agenda moving forward.”

Months of back and forth

The last time the board met on the issue was in mid-August, when only two districts — Broward and Alachua — were under scrutiny for requiring students to wear masks unless they had a medical exemption. At that meeting, the board determined the districts had violated state rules because they did not include an opt-out provision for parents.

A lot has happened since then.

The state has withheld funds from Alachua and Broward in an amount equal to the salaries of all the school board members who voted for the mask mandate. President Joe Biden’s administration later intervened and back-filled the financial penalties, as the president criticized the state’s actions.

Eleven more districts voted to also impose strict mask mandates. Two of those districts — Indian River and Lee — later backed away from those requirements.

In court, parents sued the state over its rule, from both sides. Some wanted masks imposed, while others asked the courts to void district mask policies. Several of the lawsuits remain ongoing, including the parent-led complaint that resulted in a Leon County judge ruling that Gov. Ron DeSantis acted “without legal authority” when barring districts from imposing strict mask mandates. That ruling is being appealed by the state.

Meanwhile, the state keeps changing the rules.

DeSantis’ newly-appointed surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, issued a new rule in late September that tightened up the state’s COVID-19 rules for schools. That rule made clear that masking decisions in schools were up to families’ “sole discretion,” in an attempt that critics said was meant to override districts’ medical exemption.

It also said that if a school-age child is exposed to COVID-19 but has no symptoms, parents and guardians can decide whether the student should be quarantined or attend school.

“I trust parents and families, and I don’t think they are going to go around lying,” DeSantis said about the rule.

Miami-Dade challenges state rule

When the new rule was issued, it had the immediate effect of dismissing a school district-led administrative complaint challenging the state’s ban on strict mask mandates. That’s because Ladapo’s new rule “repealed” a previous Department of Health order issued in August, attorneys for the state argued.

Last week, though, the Miami-Dade School Board filed a new administrative complaint to challenge key portions of the new rule, which was adopted through an emergency rule-making process. The district argues the state did not “justify adequately” why it should not have gone through a traditional rule-making process, which would have required a longer vetting process.

As a result, the school board is asking an administrative judge to quash the parental opt-out requirements in the rule.

To listen in to the 1 p.m. conference call on Thursday, call 1-800-368-1029 and use passcode: 380771. The meeting will also be webcast on the Florida Channel.