By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis and top state education officials are continuing to pursue a crackdown on school districts that don’t comply with a new Department of Health rule requiring that parents be allowed to opt out of student mask mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
DeSantis issued an executive order July 30 seeking to block mask mandates for students, triggering the health department’s rule requiring district opt-out policies. Alachua and Broward counties are requiring doctors’ notes for children to be exempt from wearing masks, a requirement that state officials contend is not allowed by the rule.
The State Board of Education has scheduled an emergency meeting Tuesday “to consider the compliance of school districts, including Broward and Alachua” with the rule and a new state law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” according to a notice of the meeting.
“The Department of Education finds that the failure to follow the Department of Health’s emergency rule for controlling the spread of COVID-19 in school settings creates an immediate danger to the public health, safety, or welfare now that schools are opening in Broward and Alachua counties,” the notice published Friday in the Florida Administrative Register said.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran will “report his findings related to Alachua and Broward” during the emergency meeting and “sanctions would follow if they’re found to be in violation of the mask mandate ban,” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in an email Friday to The News Service of Florida.
Corcoran this week wrote letters to three districts to pressure officials to comply with the health department’s rule or face potential financial penalties.
Corcoran threatened in his letter to “withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board” if the districts moved forward with requiring doctors’ notes.
One of the districts, Leon County, immediately reversed course on its proposed doctor’s note requirement.
The Broward County School Board voted Tuesday to require students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with parents needing to submit doctors’ notes for exemptions. The district had not responded to Corcoran’s letter as of early Friday afternoon and had until 5 p.m. to submit its response.
But Alachua County held firm to its requirement for students to have medical reasons to not wear masks.
Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon and School Board Chairwoman Leanetta McNealy, in a reply to Corcoran, urged him to “consider the appropriateness” of withholding funds to the district.
“Neither the Florida Department of Education nor the (State) Board of Education control the payroll distribution of school districts,” they wrote. “Your action would, however, remove funding from our district’s general fund and would be a reduction of allocation.”
Pushaw said Friday that if the state penalizes a district in the amount of its officials’ collective salaries, the onus would be on school boards to withhold their own pay.
“The state does not, and has never, managed the payroll for local officials. These superintendents and school board members aren’t state employees. Therefore, the only way the state could ever tailor the financial penalties to hold accountable the few officials who made the decision to break the law, would be to withhold state funding in the exact amount of those officials’ salaries,” Pushaw said.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2022, held an online news conference Friday and characterized the DeSantis administration’s interpretation of Corcoran’s letter as “walking back” threats to noncompliant school districts.
“To every school superintendent, teacher, parent, and student who spoke out against the governor’s unconstitutional and dangerous executive order: It’s because of your work that he has walked back his threats to punish school boards that are just trying to do right by their kids,” Fried said.
In response, Pushaw said that Fried is “spreading disinformation,” and refuted that DeSantis has softened his stance on penalizing local school officials.
“It’s not accurate to say that the state has “softened its stance”/backtracked/reversed/changed our position in any way, shape or form on docking the pay of superintendents and school board members who violate state law to impose forced masking on children,” Pushaw said in the email.
Broward County School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood, who took part in the news conference with Fried, also indicated that the threat to funding still hangs in the balance.
“They would withhold the funds that we have to take from our general funds and then in good faith, not to take resources away from the students, that school board members who chose to protect the people that they love … would not pay themselves,” Osgood said.
Osgood also said that she is prepared, “if the governor goes that route to take our salaries, to give up my salary.” She later added that people in her community would “share a pot of collard greens” and “some cornbread with each other to make sure that everybody has something to eat.”
Just days into the school year in much of the state, districts already are clocking COVID-19 cases while Florida grapples with the highly-transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.
The Palm Beach County school district reported Thursday on its COVID-19 dashboard 131 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the district among students and staff.
The district on Friday confirmed to the News Service that as of Wednesday, 440 students had been quarantined.