Florida’s school children and teachers come before politics | Editorial
The state Board of Education should not be threatening schools over COVID.
Members of the Hillsborough County School Board listen as residents voice their opinions Wednesday during an emergency meeting in Tampa to consider a stronger masking policy in response to a new surge in coronavirus infections.
Members of the Hillsborough County School Board listen as residents voice their opinions Wednesday during an emergency meeting in Tampa to consider a stronger masking policy in response to a new surge in coronavirus infections. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 19, 2021

Has the Florida Board of Education lost its collective mind? How else do you describe the idea of punishing local school districts for protecting children and teachers from the spiking pandemic? Even for a state board mired in politics and out of its depth, this is a master class in bullying, ignorance, overreach and bad judgment.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone in Tallahassee occupying a position of public trust that Florida is the leading edge of a new surge in COVID-19. New infections and hospitalizations have reached record levels. Positivity rates have soared. Deaths are climbing again as vaccinations lag. And even though the new school year is only starting, thousands of students and teachers across Florida have already become infected, and thousands more are in isolation or quarantine.

The situation isn’t fake; it’s destabilizing and it’s crying out for proactive leadership. Districts are working furiously to keep campuses safe, the buses running and classrooms open for in-person instruction. That should be everyone’s goal — containing the viral spread while avoiding the losses in academics and socialization that come with virtual learning. But now the Board of Education comes along to throw campuses in turmoil and to put entire communities at greater risk.

The board is poised to sanction several Florida school districts for allegedly defying state directives on masking. Alachua and Broward counties have adopted policies requiring that students obtain doctors’ notes before they can be exempted from mask requirements. The Hillsborough County School Board adopted a similar measure Wednesday, voting 5-2 for a tougher policy for the next 30 days, and the Miami-Dade County School District also voted the same day in favor of a mask mandate. State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said those policies violate more relaxed state directives on masking, and he has floated severe and immediate sanctions.

“It may involve withholding salaries. It may involve removing officers. It may involve reviewing district conduct. It may involve public records requests to see how monies are being spent within the districts,” state Board chairman Tom Grady outlined this week.

Withholding pay? Removing school leaders? What side of the COVID battle are these board members on? School districts are scrambling to navigate a serious, complex public health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. And children under 12 — read, elementary school students and some middle schoolers — aren’t even eligible for the vaccines. Are districts supposed to sit back and do nothing to stem the misery from spreading?

Grady and Corcoran have chosen sides, and they’re teaming with Gov. Ron DeSantis on what many Republicans leaders have contorted into a political issue. And they’re standing behind a state masking mandate that’s rooted in an executive order filled with junk science and political talking points, on a state health rule that turns logic on its head, and on a parental rights law that doesn’t even mention masks and which gives school districts a broad exemption to act in pursuit of “a compelling state interest.”

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The safety of students and teachers certainly fits that bill. School districts shouldn’t be punished for reacting to crises arising in their communities. The state Board of Education should start seeing the bigger picture instead of readying to fight these districts in court. After all, it’s already lost big in the court of public opinion.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.