(Trends Wide) — The Florida Board of Education voted Thursday to sanction eight school districts that have instituted mask-wearing mandates without giving parents the ability to exclude their students.
In doing so, the state board said that school districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties were not complying with and in direct violation of a Florida Department of Health emergency rule.
As a penalty, Florida Board of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has requested that each district’s funds be withheld “in an amount equal to 1/12 of the salaries of all school board members,” in addition to withhold any amount equal to federal grant funds awarded to those districts by the administration of President Joe Biden.
Thursday’s vote is the latest development in a showdown between the state and a handful of local school districts that decided to implement the mask-wearing requirement in their schools, defying an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis that sought to give parents a choice. to decide if their children should wear face masks in class. The state had threatened to withhold funds from districts that violated the order and required the use of masks for all.
In comments to the state board, the superintendents of those districts argued Thursday that they were in compliance, with many citing the rising count of COVID-19 cases and its spread at school as reasons for having mask-wearing mandates.
Duval County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene noted that after the second week of the school opening, the district recorded 10 employee deaths.
In addition, the Health Department had a “clear inability” to conduct contact tracing, case investigations and timely notifications to affected families, he said, which had “a direct impact on the spread of the virus throughout our school. , which ultimately endangered the health and safety of students and employees. “
Brevard County Schools Superintendent Mark Mullins argued that the mask mandates were necessary after schools opened without them, leading to “catastrophic results for our schools and our community.”
“We had more than 3,200 positive cases, we had to close one school and we were about to close others,” Mullins said, adding that staff members were also hospitalized.
In a statement released Thursday, Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon said the district would “maintain its current masking protocols” despite the sanction, saying, “We believe those protocols comply with state law and our obligation to It is constitutional to provide students with a safe learning environment. “
In its own statement, the state Board of Education said, in part, that school board members from the eight sanctioned districts had “willfully and knowingly violated the rights of students and parents by denying them the option of making educational and child care decisions. personal and private health care for their children. “
“Elected members of the school board must set a good example for our leaders of tomorrow,” said State Board of Education President Tom Grady. “Instead, they are telling our younger generations that it is perfectly acceptable to choose which laws to follow because they do not agree with the underlying policy. That is simply unacceptable and antithetical to our Constitution.”
Board of Education Commissioner Criticizes Federal Grants
The US Department of Education had paid grants to Alachua and Broward County school districts to offset state sanctions, but Corcoran on Thursday called this “one of the most egregious violations” of the US Constitution. .UU.
“I strongly believe that this federal grant program is improperly intended to interfere with the authority of the state board to administer our state’s educational system. Education is a state responsibility, not a federal one, and is awarded to this board under our state constitution.” Corcoran said.
In response, Ian Rosenblum, the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs, sent a letter to Corcoran on Thursday saying that efforts to withhold more funding from schools raised “legal concerns.”
“We should thank districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We support dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country who do the right thing to protect their school communities,” said the Secretary of Education. from the United States, Miguel Cardona, last month.
“With these grants, we are making sure that schools and communities across the country that are committed to safely returning to in-person learning know that we stand behind them,” he said.
6 districts filed a petition challenging the rule
Six of the districts filed a petition against the Department of Health (DOH) on Wednesday, challenging the rule that blocked the implementation of the mask-wearing mandates and another that allowed parents to decide whether their children should be quarantined after being exposed to covid-19.
The petition was filed with the Florida Division of Administrative Affairs on behalf of the Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Duval, Alachua and Leon county school boards.
The petition specifically challenged the rule that allows parents to choose to exclude their children from mask-wearing mandates, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.”
The rule, petitioners claimed, “doesn’t really focus on controlling COVID-19 but on protecting parental rights.”
“DOH does not have the authority to regulate in this area,” the petition said, “and therefore exceeded its authority to regulate.”
Trends Wide’s Ashley Ahn contributed to this report.