School & District Management

Florida Withholds School Board Salaries Over Mask Mandates

By Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel — August 31, 2021 5 min read
Students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, in Miami Lakes, Fla., on Aug. 23, 2021. Florida school districts can legally require their students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a judge ruled Friday, Aug, 27, saying Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.
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Despite a court ruling saying school districts can require students to wear masks, the state is still withholding money to penalize Broward County schools.

A news release Monday from the Florida Department of Education doesn’t address the ruling from Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper, who found that the state’s ban on mask mandates was unconstitutional.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the state will withhold money equivalent to the salaries of eight of the nine Broward School Board members who voted for a mask mandate. He also is withholding the salaries of four of five board members in Alachua County who passed a similar measure.

Corcoran said the districts can’t use money designed for students or teacher pay to offset the penalty.

“We’re going to fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children,” Corcoran said. “They know what is best for their children. What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”

The release said the commissioner and state Board of Education “retain the right and duty to impose additional sanctions and take additional enforcement action to bring each school district into compliance with state law and rule.”

Some Broward School Board members expressed outrage.

“This feels illegal to me,” School Board member Sarah Leonardi said. “Perhaps Commissioner Corcoran should reread the Florida Constitution because I swore an oath to ‘provide a safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools’” outlined in the Constitution.

State officials announced Friday that they would appeal the Leon County court ruling. The judge had said he would issue his order this week, but that hasn’t happened yet, possibly providing a window for the state to take this action.

“Unlike several school districts in this state, our Department plans on continuing to follow the rule of law until such time as the Court issues its ruling, and subsequent to that ruling, we plan on immediately appealing this decision ... from which we will seek to stay the ruling,” Jared Ochs, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said in a statement Monday night.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Dec. 10, four 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. Sixteen 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.

    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. The order was later extended. The case is now awaiting a ruling from a federal appeals court.

    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
    14. Oregon
    15. Rhode Island
    16. Virginia

    An executive order from Virginia's new governor that is set to take effect on Jan. 24 rescinds the state's current school mask mandate and instead allows parents to opt their child out of any mask mandate at their school.

    17. Washington
  • Note: In Missouri, the state attorney general has threatened to sue 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 01/20/2022| Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

The issue relates to whether the school districts are complying with a July 30 executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis and an Aug. 7 state rule from the Department of Health saying that parents must be able to opt their children out of mask mandates. State officials are also citing the Parents Bill of Rights, a law passed by the Legislature this year that gives parents more say on matters related to their children’s health.

School districts say mask mandates are needed to protect public health, as COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed and children under 12 can’t get vaccinated. Their decisions are backed by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mask opponents argue that children are at low risk of getting seriously sick or dying from COVID-19 and masks make for a miserable learning environment for students.

Broward and Alachua were the first two districts to defy state orders requiring a parent opt-out. Since then eight others have joined them, including Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, but the state hasn’t taken final action on them yet.

Miami-Dade and Palm Beach received letters giving them until Wednesday to comply with the state’s orders. Neither plans to do so.

“I think what we need to make clear is our School Board believes we are acting in our constitutional authority, as indicated by Judge Cooper,” said Frank Barbieri, chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board.

Broward school officials hold similar views. Interim Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright .has said that the state Department of Health rules were written in such a way that do not require districts to allow any parent to opt out of the policy. The district is allowing children with certain medical conditions or special needs to opt out.

“We are looking to cooperate with the Department of Education and the State Board of Education,” Cartwright said Monday. “We’re not looking to make this a political matter. We believe we are in compliance with the law.”

The issue has become intensely political, with Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, feuding with DeSantis and the Republican-controlled State Board of Education. Biden has offered to allow school districts to use federal dollars to replace any funds cut from the state.

The state’s action also could lead to a federal civil rights investigation. Earlier Monday, Biden’s Education Department on Monday opened investigations into five Republican-led states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

See Also

Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles on April 13, 2021.
Kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles in April 2021.
Jae C. Hong/AP

Florida was not on the list, federal officials said, because of the judge’s ruling preventing the state from enforcing the ban on mask mandates. That could change now that the state doubled down on its intent to enforce its rules.

“The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

In announcing the investigations, the department said it will examine whether the policies violate a federal law protecting students with disabilities. Under that law, students with disabilities must be given access to a “free appropriate public education” alongside their peers without disabilities.

Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said she’s “very disappointed” that Corcoran and the Department of Education are “not willing to work with school districts” while the legal issues are resolved.

“Any defunding of public education is not appropriate,” Osgood said. “Our staff and students are experiencing additional trauma caused by the pandemic. Many staff and students have lost family members, friends and coworkers. Districts are trying to provide quality face-to-face learning.”

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

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