Student Willie Webb, 20, receives a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination at St. Thomas University, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Miami. The university offered a pop-up vaccination site for students on move-in day in preparation for the first day of school August 23. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Florida orders school boards to relax mask rules or risk pay

Florida orders school boards to relax mask rules or risk pay

MIAMI (AP) — Florida officials are threatening to withhold funds equal to the salaries of school board members if school districts in two counties don’t immediately do away with strict mask mandates as the state continues to battle through high hospitalization rates.

School boards in Broward and Alachua counties received a warning Friday from the State Board of Education giving them 48 hours to walk back their decisions to require masks for all students, only exempting those with a doctor’s note. Broward County has the second-largest school district in the state.

“We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran in an emailed statement. “These are the initial consequences to their intentional refusal to follow state law and state rule to purposefully and willingly violate the rights of parents.”

Corcoran said the two districts are violating the Parents’ Bill of Rights and a late July executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that prompted rules limiting how far districts can go with mask requirements.

The Republican governor has pushed for school districts not to mandate masks for all students, ordering the state’s health and education departments to devise rules so that parents can choose. Corcoran was recommended to the post by DeSantis and appointed by the State Board of Education in 2019.

DeSantis maintains masks can be detrimental for children’s development and that younger children simply don’t wear masks properly. But board members in the counties of Broward, home to Fort Lauderdale, and Alachua, home to Gainesville, decided not to allow parents to easily opt out of the mandate as surging cases fueled by the delta variant began straining hospitals.

Florida on Friday surpassed 3 million total COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a weekly report from the state’s health department. It also reported 1,486 new deaths in a week, significantly raising the seven-day average of reported deaths per day from 153 to 212 over the past week.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported there were 16,849 people in hospitals with COVID-19 — 3,500 of them in intensive care.

Two other school districts had originally started the school year allowing parents to easily opt out of wearing masks, but tightened their measures this week. And the school board of the state’s largest district in Miami-Dade County adopted a policy of only allowing mask exemptions with a doctor’s note.

Because of the size of the school districts’ budgets, the cuts are more symbolic than harmful. According to the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, school board members in Alachua County make $40,000 per year and in Broward County, $46,000. Alachua has about 30,000 students and a $258 million general fund budget. Broward County has about 270,000 students and a $2.7 billion general fund budget.

Corcoran’s orders require that school districts provide information regarding the compensation of school board members who voted to impose strict mandates if they don’t immediately reverse their decisions. It also outlines it will begin to withhold from state funds the amount equal to their monthly salary, saying districts are prohibited from cutting funds in other areas such as teachers pay or student services.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke Friday with the superintendents of the two school districts, saying the Biden administration backed their decisions to adapt their policies based on CDC recommendations. He added they should use federal pandemic relief funds to make up for any financial sanctions.

“It is deeply troubling to see state leaders putting politics ahead of the health and safety of our students,” he said in a statement. “The president asked me to do everything I can to help protect our nation’s students and support the local leaders who are fighting for them.”

DeSantis attacked the Biden administration’s response, calling it “absolutely outrageous” and governmental “overreach.”

“To have the federal government come in and overrule the rights of the parents as if they know better?” DeSantis said at a news conference Friday. “They want to kneecap the parents and empower teachers unions.”

Broward school board President Rosalind Osgood stood by the board’s decision, saying the governor was “overreaching his authority.” In a statement, she said the district has asked its lawyers to explore legal challenges and will provide a response to Friday’s order within 48 hours as requested.

“The Constitution of the state of Florida gives local school boards the authority to make policies that govern local school districts,” Osgood said.

It’s unclear what will happen with the state funds if a judge decides to block DeSantis’ order regarding masks. On Thursday, a state judge cleared the way for a three-day trial next week on a lawsuit from parents challenging DeSantis. An attorney in the lawsuit said those decisions should be left to local school boards.

In asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, attorneys for the governor contended that the governor’s order simply upholds a law that gives parents the right to make health care decisions. The law makes no specific mention of masks.

On Friday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint in a Florida appeals court to invalidate portions of the rule that dictates schools must allow parents to opt out of mask requirements.

Adriana Gomez Licon And Terry Spencer, The Associated Press