School & District Management

Florida May Withhold Funds and Remove School Board Members Over Masks

By Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel — August 18, 2021 5 min read
In this May 10, 2021 photo, Broward County School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood speaks during a school board workshop.
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As more school districts in Florida consider stricter mask mandates, the state Board of Education is threatening severe penalties for two districts that tried, including Broward Schools.

In a nearly three-hour conference call Tuesday, the state board voted unanimously to consider sanctions that include loss of funds, the removal of School Board members, more accountability, further investigations, public records requests to see how much money is spent on publicity, and a report to the state Legislature which could take further action.

The financial penalties may not be as severe as Commission Chairman Tom Grady said he doesn’t want to take money that hurt kids’ education. But the Broward district could lose $690,000, equal to the salaries of the superintendent and nine School Board members.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran told the board that Broward and Alachua counties both violated state rules that carry the same weight as laws when they mandated that children wear masks without allowing parents to opt out.

“Districts have a requirement to follow the law whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran told the board.

Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said in a text message Tuesday night that schools will reopen for the first day of school Wednesday with the mask mandate intact.

“The pandemic is traumatic enough,” Osgood said. “The recommendation of the Florida Board of Education to move forward is unfortunate. We just want to keep our students and staff safe and focus on education, mental health and supporting our students.”

The move comes as other districts could be enacting strict mask mandates due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases as well as quarantines that are affecting thousands of students statewide.

Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties both will have meetings Wednesday where they may require students to wear masks except for certain medical conditions. Lee County was considering the proposal Tuesday night.

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A Broward School Board policy, passed July 28 and reaffirmed Aug. 10, requires all students to wear face coverings unless they have exemptions due to medical conditions or provisions in their individual education plan, typically used for special needs students. The district cited both high COVID-19 cases and recent federal guidance.

Vickie Cartwright, interim superintendent for Broward County, told the state board that there are only five pediatric beds left in all of Broward County.

But Broward’s policy is at odds with a July 30 executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and an Aug. 6 order by the Department of Health, which require that parents be allowed to opt out under the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” a law passed by the Legislature this year that gives parents more say on health and medical decisions involving their children.

The state board said law makes clear that districts must give parents who don’t want their kids to wear a mask an easy opt out.

Cartwright said the district found the Health Department rule ambiguous, saying only that there needs to be a parent opt out. The district is allowing opt outs for kids with medical conditions as well as exemptions in their individual education plans.

“If it was the desire of the Department of Health to require medical documentation or not require medical documentation, that language should have been outlined,” Cartwright told the board.

She also said case law involving Palm Beach County found that a face mask is not a medical device, so therefore it’s not subject to the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Jan. 24, five states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Five additional states have such bans, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT


    1. Florida

    On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18 Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Oklahoma

    On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of school mask mandates if they choose.

    3. Texas

    On Dec. 1, an appeals court halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.

    4. Utah

    In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.

    5. Virginia

    An executive order from Gov. Youngkin that took effect on Jan. 24, 2022 allows parents to opt their child out of any mask mandate at their school. The order also rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been put in place since August. The order has caused confusion and prompted lawsuits.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. On Jan. 25, a federal appeals panel narrowed that injunction, allowing enforcement of the ban, in all but 10 districts. The panel's decision has yet to take effect, so the state is still not enforcing the ban.

    4. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    5. Tennessee

    MASKS REQUIRED


    1. California
    2. Connecticut
    3. Delaware
    4. District of Columbia
    5. Hawaii
    6. Illinois
    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, and most recently extended on Jan. 19, students are required to wear masks in schools, but districts can opt out of the mandate if they adopt an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but newly allowed school districts to opt out if at least 80% of the county or 80% of their students and staff have been fully vaccinated.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Jan. 10, Massachusetts extended the state's mask requirement through Feb. 28. On Sept. 27, Massachusetts said schools can apply for a waiver from the face covering rules if 80% of their students and staff have been vaccinated. If a school reaches the 80% threshold, unvaccinated students and employees are still required to wear masks.

    10. Nevada
    11. New Jersey

    On Dec. 7, a judge ruled New Jersey's school mask mandate is "rational" and does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

    12. New Mexico
    13. New York

    On Jan. 24, a judge struck down the state's mask mandate. A day later, an appeals judge restored the mandate.

    14. Oregon
    15. Rhode Island
    16. Washington
  • Note: In Missouri, the state attorney general has sued some school districts that require masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 are illegal. (The ruling is being interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he was also cracking down on schools with mask mandates.
    Updated 01/26/2022 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

Cartwright also said Broward parents overwhelmingly prefer mask mandates. Only 200 of more than 200,000 have requested assistance in opting out of the mask rules, she said.

Grady questioned health data that Cartwright and Carlee Simon, superintendent in Alachua County, were using. He blasted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an “agency run amok.” He cited research that claims “masking can harm children’s developmental progress,” although the American Academy of Pediatrics and other mainstream medical and research experts dispute that.

Grilled by Grady on whether the state has authority to make education rules, Simon conceded it does but added, “I also think it’s the state’s responsibility for providing a safe and secure public education.”

School masks have become a largely political debate, pitting Democrats, who generally favor mask mandates, against Republicans, many of whom argue it’s up to parents to decide.

Corcoran and state board members are appointed by the Republican governor. But the issue has attracted the interest of the state and nation’s top Democrats. President Biden has offered to allow school districts to use federal COVID-19 relief dollars to cover any funding losses from the state.

Biden called Cartwright on Friday.

“He expressed words of comfort,” Cartwright told the board when asked the nature of the call.

Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running against DeSantis for governor in 2022, was one of the public speakers at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Shame on you,” Fried told the board. “How embarrassing that you are more afraid of the governor than you are for the lives of our children and teachers, who are getting sick and dying in record numbers.”

The Broward School Board has insisted that the Florida Constitution gives it control to ensure the health and safety of its students. But Corcoran argues that the Board of Education supervises the K-12 system as a whole.

“This broader supervisory authority may at times infringe on a school board’s local powers, but such infringement is expressly contemplated — and in fact encouraged by the very nature of supervision by the Florida Constitution,” Corcoran wrote, citing case law.

The State Board of Education may impose identical sanctions for the Alachua County school district, which is also defying the state rules.

Palm Beach County, which started school last week, agreed to let any parent opt out, which the state says complies with the law. The School Board may discuss the issue again at a meeting Wednesday.

Copyright (c) 2021, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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