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Florida Board of Education votes to withhold funds from school districts that enforce COVID-19 mask mandates

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The Florida Board of Education voted unanimously on Thursday to financially sanction eight school districts that enforced mask mandates in their schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These district mask policies, which adhere to federal guidance, go against state rules that require parents to have the "sole discretion" in whether their children wear masks to school. 

The decision was made at Thursday's meeting after board members weighed comments from the public, superintendents and board officials about whether districts for Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties were in compliance with the state's rules. 

Five of the counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Palm Beach and Duval, have some of the highest numbers of COVID cases in the state, according to John's Hopkins.

In late September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a new rule that says schools can require mask-wearing on campus, but that students can opt out of the requirement "at the parent or legal guardian's sole discretion." The rule also allows students who have been directly exposed to COVID-19 to keep going to school if they are asymptomatic. 

Around the same time this guidance came out, the CDC published two studies that show enforcing masks in schools helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The state's Department of Education said in a statement that the counties "willingly and knowingly violated the rights of students and parents by denying them the option to make personal and private health care and educational decisions for their children." 

While discussing Alachua County, Board Commissioner Richard Corcoran urged the Board of Education to penalize noncompliant districts by withholding funds equal to 1/12 of all school board members annual salaries. He also recommended that the board withhold state funds "in an amount equal to" any federal grant funds for districts that "support noncompliance" with state protocols. 

The board unanimously authorized his recommendation, giving districts 48 hours to adhere to state law. 

"[Districts] can't pick and choose which parts of the law they want to follow. ...Education is a state responsibility, not a federal one," Corcoran said. 

In September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Alachua County $147,719 in Project SAFE funds to support the district's efforts "to protect students as they return to safe, in-person learning despite the state's actions to prohibit implementation of strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19." 

"We will not be strong-armed," Corcoran said in regards to the grant, "nor will we allow others to be." 

The board said during the meeting that none of the aforementioned schools allowed students to opt out under their parents' or guardians' "sole discretion," with some of the districts requiring medical reasoning. 

Superintendents argued, however, that they did not allow the opt-outs to protect students so they could continue in-person learning. Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon pointed to the state's "Parents Bill of Rights," which states that entities cannot infringe on parental rights "without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means." 

"Our current policies are reasonable and necessary to protect the health of our students, which is certainly a compelling interest," Simon said. 

In August, the district required masks be properly worn in buildings at all times. 

Despite the board's decision to penalize districts, Simon said after the meeting that her district will maintain its current protocols, saying it is "our constitutional obligation to provide students with a safe learning environment." Alachua, as well as Broward, have already had some of their state funding withheld this year over their mask policies. 

Alachua County Public Schools said that the U.S. Department of Education has told Florida that the withholding of state funds because of a federal grant may be illegal.

Below please find an update from Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon regarding the Florida Board of Education's sanction of...

Posted by Alachua County Public Schools on Thursday, October 7, 2021

Diana Greene, superintendent for Duval County, said that eight days into the school year, there were 492 COVID cases reported to the state, most of which were students. Two weeks into the fall semester, 10 district employees had died because of COVID-19. 

"Today, we have more than 2,800 positive cases," she said. 

Several community members said they supported their districts' decision to enforce mask mandates, but the board members urged people to only mention facts about compliance to state rules, not about concerns for school COVID safety. 

One woman told the board that her son, JJ, is wheelchair-bound, and uses an iPad for communication. She said he uses his nose to type on the iPad, and as such, cannot wear a mask. 

"JJ is currently stuck at home because, during a pandemic that's killed nearly 5 million people, this board decided to give unvaccinated, unmasked students the final say on whether they want to spread a highly contagious airborne virus," she said. "This means JJ has not had any form of education so far this school year." 

From September 24 to September 30, there were more than 37,700 new cases of COVID-19, according to state data. The cases are part of a decline in statewide cases after several weeks of a sharp increase. Children and teenagers made up more than 9,800 cases in Florida that week. 

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