Law & Courts

Fla. Districts That Required Masks Could Face $200 Million Punishment

By Brooke Baitinger, South Florida Sun Sentinel — February 10, 2022 4 min read
First Graders Alex Albin, left, and Tyler Custodio wear masks in Amanda McCoy's first grade class at the newly-rebuilt Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Palm Beach County Schools opened the school year with a masking requirement with an opt-out option.
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South Florida and Orlando school districts say they were trying to keep students and their families safe when they required students to wear masks on campus last year.

Legislators in Tallahassee say that in doing so, a dozen school districts broke Florida law and should face consequences. The Florida House of Representatives moved forward on Wednesday with a plan to punish the school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on face mask mandates for students last year.

The proposal, called Putting Parents First, would strip a total of $200 million from a dozen school districts that defied DeSantis. That includes Broward County, Palm Beach County, and Miami-Dade County school districts, as well as the Orange County school district in Orlando.

The money will come out of the salaries of about 1,600 non-teaching school employees that make over $100,000, and would be spread among the 55 school districts that didn’t impose mask mandates. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, recommended the proposal and suggested that the 12 districts had more money than they needed to pay “bureaucrats,” such as superintendents and administrators working in central offices, making more than double the starting salary of a school teacher.

House Democrats in the appropriations committee said they disagreed with the measure, calling it unfair and questioning its constitutionality.

They also questioned how Fine could say the move was not punitive, a point he maintained throughout the meeting.

Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, advocated on behalf of the parents who supported mask mandates.

“In a lot of cases, parents like me who didn’t want our students going to school where they would pick something up and bring it home,” he said, adding that his wife is recovering from cancer and other families surely have immunocompromised loved ones at home.

Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said he thought it was a mistake to limit local school boards who are elected to make decisions for their communities.

“I believe there are a lot of intended and unintended consequences,” he said, adding that even if it might be good to “trim the fat” from school systems, that should be up to local school boards to do the best thing for their community in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

A tale of state versus local control

By the summer of 2021, students and teachers had endured a school year of remote learning and isolation, which hampered instruction and put some students further behind in school.

State leaders decided it was time for students and teachers to return to campus, even as the delta variant spiked daily. The governor issued an executive order against requiring masks, warning school districts that were considering mandates to let parents choose.

When students returned, many had to quarantine due to exposure in their classes, and some of the most populous school districts determined that masks were necessary to protect kids, their families, and teachers.

As the school year progressed, school board members and superintendents sat through lengthy meetings where anti-mask protesters flooded public comment with misinformation and even threatened them and their families.

The feud continued for months, as state leaders threatened to withhold funds and remove School Board members. Finally, some of the School Boards banded together to take a stand against the governor’s ban and challenged it in court, including Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Alachua County school districts, among others.

Those districts questioned the state’s authority to pass such a rule that was contrary to federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

See Also

Two students wearing masks and backpacks in front of lockers.
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Before those issues were resolved in court, DeSantis’ executive order was cemented in state law during a special legislative session in November. DeSantis signed HB 1B that prohibited vaccine and mask requirements in schools.

There was no immediate effect at the time, since the school district had already decided to make masks optional for everyone since the county had met a benchmark of positivity rates below 3%.

A few weeks later, the omicron variant burned through South Florida. Though omicron’s effects appeared less severe than the previous variants, positivity rates spiked again. South Florida’s school districts again mandated masks, but only for adults on campus.

Districts react

The Broward County Council of PTAs said in a statement that the measure to remove money from districts would hurt children in schools.

“As child advocates, we are very disappointed in the provision to fine school districts for responding to local conditions and community input and taking appropriate action to protect our children,” the statement reads. “Any financial penalties assessed on the district ultimately affects the education and well-being of our children.”

Next, the provision will be up for a vote on the House floor. The council said it would work with the legislature to remove the provision during the conference process with the Senate.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • 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. Georgia

    On March 29, Gov. Kemp signed the “Unmask Georgia Students Act” which allows parents to exempt their child from a school mask requirement. The law went into effect immediately.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, 2021, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. On Jan. 25, 2022, a federal appeals panel narrowed that injunction. Iowa’s attorney general announced the state is not enforcing the ban while awaiting further action from the court. On May 16, 2022 a U.S. Court of Appeals lifted the injunction.

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

    6. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    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. On April 25, Gov. Ducey signed HB2616, which prevents schools from requiring a student to wear a mask without first getting parental consent. The ban, which replaces the one blocked by the courts, will go into effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns.

    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. South Carolina

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

    4. Tennessee
    5. Texas

    On March 17, an appeals court upheld an injunction that blocked Gov. Abbott's executive order banning mask mandates in schools, finding it is unlawful and exceeding the governor's authority. This is not the first time the state's ban has been halted by a judge.

    MASK REQUIREMENT IN EFFECT


    1. Hawaii

    Although Hawaii's state-wide indoor mask mandate ended on March 25, indoor masking will still be required in public schools at least through the summer.

    PREVIOUSLY HAD MASK REQUIREMENT


    1. California

    On Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    2. Connecticut

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Lamont announced that the school mask rule would expire Feb. 28. He signed a bill on Feb. 15 that made the expiration date official.

    3. Delaware

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Carney amended his emergency order to allow his state-level school mask requirement to expire March 31. On Feb. 28, he announced that masks would no longer be required effective at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1.

    4. District of Columbia

    On March 8, the department of health released updated guidelines that recommend universal masking only when community COVID-19 levels are high.

    5. Illinois

    On Feb. 5, a judge issued a temporary restraining order on the governor's statewide mask requirement. On Feb. 25, the state supreme court vacated that order. On the same day, the governor announced he would lift the requirement on Feb. 28.

    6. Kentucky

    Kentucky's school mask mandate ended in September, when the state legislature voted to limit the governor’s emergency powers.

    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, which was extended on Jan. 19, students were required to wear masks in schools, but districts could opt out of the mandate if they adopted an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols. On Feb. 16, Gov. Bel Edwards extended the order without requiring masking in schools.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but allowed school districts to opt out if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 22, the state board of education voted to rescind the mandate. On Feb. 25, a state legislative committee gave final approval to lift the mandate effective March 1.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Sept. 27, the state began allowing schools to apply for a waiver from the face covering rules for vaccinated individuals if certain vaccination rates were met. On Feb. 9, officials announced the statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools would be lifted on February 28.

    10. Nevada

    On Feb. 10, Gov. Sisolak announced the immediate suspension of the school mask requirement. The previous mask requirement had only applied to counties with populations of 100,000 people or more.

    11. New Jersey

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Murphy announced plans to end his state’s school-mask requirement on March 7.

    12. New Mexico

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Grisham announced the end of the mask requirement, effective immediately.

    13. New York

    On Jan. 24, a judge struck down the state's mask mandate. A day later, an appeals judge restored the mandate. On Feb. 27, Gov. Hochul announced the mandate would be lifted on March 2.

    14. Oregon

    On Feb. 7, health officials said the state would drop its school mask requirement no later than March 31. On Feb. 24, the Oregon Health Authority announced the requirement would lift on March 19. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

    15. Pennsylvania

    A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schoolchildren was thrown out by the state Supreme Court on December 10.

    16. Rhode Island

    On Feb. 9, Gov McKee announced the school mask mandate would only remain in effect until March 4. On Feb. 15, he signed an executive order specifying that the order would take effect at 5 p.m. on March 4.

    17. Virginia

    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state's school mask requirement that had been in place since August. That executive order was later halted by a judge. On Feb. 14, the Virginia legislature passed a measure that bans school mask mandates. That bill was signed by the governor on Feb. 16 and went into effect on March 1.

    18. Washington

    On Feb. 17, Gov. Inslee announced the state's school mask requirement will end effective March 21. However, on Feb. 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington issued a joint announcement that mask requirements would end in their states effective March 12.

  • NOTES
    In January 2022, the Missouri attorney general, Eric Schmitt, sued some school districts that required masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 were illegal. (The ruling was interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he would also crack down on schools with mask mandates. In mid-March, Schmitt began dropping lawsuits against school districts that no longer required masks. On May 19, 2022 Schmitt announced new lawsuits against several districts that had reinstated mask requirements.
    On Feb. 23, 2022 New Hampshire’s governor announced the state was no longer recommending universal indoor masking and therefore schools have to end mask mandates, arguing they violate state education department rules. Soon after, the department advised districts that the mandates “are inconsistent with” their rules. There’s disagreement over whether districts still have the authority to require masks, but at least one district changed its policy in response. A bill that would have banned mask mandates was vetoed by Gov. Sununu in May 2022.
    Updated 5/23/2022 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here

Copyright (c) 2022, South Florida Sun Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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