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Florida school districts and state continue clash over masks

News Service of Florida

Some school districts that have imposed student mask requirements aren’t backing down, despite state threats of financial penalties and a revamped Department of Health rule aimed at bolstering parental choice on masks.

The State Board of Education will meet Thursday and is considering disciplinary action against 11 school boards that set student mask mandates to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The districts targeted for potential penalties are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Sarasota counties.

The Florida Department of Education already has dinged two districts financially at the direction of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. On Aug. 30, the department began withholding funding for Alachua and Broward counties in amounts equal to the monthly salaries of school-board members who voted for mask mandates.

The state board meeting Thursday will focus, at least in part, on a revamped Department of Health rule signed by Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo on Sept. 22. That rule came after some districts have required students to wear masks, with exceptions only for medical reasons.

The rule, which replaced a version issued Aug. 6, seeks to give parents control over whether students wear masks, regardless of whether doctors sign off. The new rule also allows parental control over whether asymptomatic students quarantine following exposure to people with COVID-19.

During a special meeting Tuesday to determine how to deal with the new rule, the Brevard County School Board voted against two proposals to end its student mask requirement. The board voted 3-2 to keep a mandate until the community hits a certain benchmark of decreased COVID-19 cases.

“As much as anyone else, I want to get the masks off of the kids. But my recommendation would be for us to stick to that 50 (cases) per 100,000 (population) and when we get there, to transition to a parent opt-out at that point,” Brevard County School Board Chairwoman Misty Belford told the board.

While Brevard County has seen a reduced number of COVID-19 cases, Belford said she proposed keeping the student mask requirement, in part, because of the health department rule on student quarantines.

“I have real fear that incorporation of this new quarantine policy could really impact that (progress),” Belford said.

The Department of Health and the Department of Education began taking action after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a July 30 executive order designed to prevent student mask requirements.

While Corcoran has started to withhold money from school boards that bucked the DeSantis administration, the federal government stepped in last month to make up the lost money, further propelling a feud between President Joe Biden and DeSantis on education issues.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $150,000 to Alachua County to cover the salaries of four school board members and days later provided $420,000 to backfill salaries for eight Broward County board members.

The Broward County School Board also voted 8-1 Tuesday to keep its mask mandate, and the board made clear that it is not following the state's new guidelines on allowing parents to make decisions about student quarantines.

“I do not support making masks optional at this time. I believe that our mask mandate has really helped us in keeping our students safe. I think that we should continue to look at data trends and continue to evaluate the situation,” Broward school board member Patricia Good said “But with the months ahead, the gathering of families during the holidays, I think it would not be prudent at this time to start making changes.”

Antoine Hickman, chief officer of student support initiatives and recovery for the Broward schools, told the board that local COVID-19 cases and deaths have been on a declining trend.

But Good criticized the revised state rule on student quarantines.

“To not quarantine a student that has interacted with someone that has tested positive with COVID, to me, is irresponsible,” Good said.

Duval County school officials also informed Corcoran and the state board in a letter Friday that they won’t reverse course on a student mask requirement.

The Sarasota County and Hillsborough County school boards were meeting later Tuesday to discuss mask requirements.

Corcoran is poised to take aim at the federal aid to school boards during Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting. In a series of “probable cause” letters addressed to the school boards Monday, Corcoran recommended that the state board consider “withholding state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds awarded” to the school boards not in compliance with state rules.

“Every school board member and every school superintendent has a duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran wrote in the letters. “While the district school board may not agree with the safety protocols set forth by the surgeon general in rule, the surgeon general is the person who, under the law, sets protocols to control and mitigate COVID-19 in schools.”

Several Broward school board members slammed Corcoran’s funding threat Tuesday, calling it an “intimidation tactic” that doesn’t aim to keep students safe.

“This is a back-and-forth between political parties trying to make a statement on the backs of kids in school,” board member Donna Korn said.

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida