Alachua schools stay course on mask requirement despite threats

Two school districts that faced pressure from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran about their attempts to require students to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic have given vastly different responses to the state.

Alachua County is moving forward with requiring students to have doctors’ notes to avoid wearing masks, while Leon County backed away from a similar plan and will comply with the state’s demands.

Corcoran wrote letters to leaders of the Alachua and Leon districts Monday, accusing them of violating a new Department of Health rule that says parents must be allowed to opt out of mask requirements for students. Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis contend parents should be able to decide whether children wear masks, rather than school districts mandating it.

"The emergency rule does not require parents to submit medical documentation from a physician or a nurse practitioner in order to opt out, and any such requirement is inconsistent with the emergency rule," Corcoran wrote in nearly identical letters Monday to the two districts..

Corcoran also threatened 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.

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But in a three-page letter responding to Corcoran, Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon and School Board Chairwoman Leanetta McNealy on Tuesday cited a "twenty-fold" increase in local COVID-19 cases over the past six weeks and rising hospitalizations --- even among children --- in their decision to stay the course.

"Previously healthy children are being hospitalized, including some who require intensive care," the officials’ letter said.

Simon and McNealy also urged Corcoran 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."

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The Alachua school leaders also expressed concern about the impact on district staff members of the surge in COVID-19 cases, which has been fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

"Unfortunately, we've seen a dramatic spike in the number of employees testing positive for COVID --- more in the last two weeks than in the previous five months combined. Two of our custodians died of COVID-related complications just over a week ago," the letter said.

The Leon County School Board voted Tuesday night to allow parents to opt out of the district’s temporary mask requirement for students without giving medical reasons, a reversal from an earlier decision to require doctors’ notes.

"That was very strong language coming from the commissioner," Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna told the board after reading Corcoran’s letter aloud during the meeting. "You may have taken it as threatening."

Hanna, who was visibly emotional while discussing the subject, said he ultimately wanted to provide safety for students when the school year began for the district Wednesday.

"I want to just do what is right. I am not in it for the politics of it. I just want to protect our children and get them back in school," Hanna said.

Board member DeeDee Rasmussen said the Department of Health rule did not have any wiggle room for requiring students to have medical reasons for seeking exemptions from the mask requirements.

"It says, you can have a mask, but you have to give parents the opt out. It doesn't say that you can add to it a medical waiver," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen added that she felt there are legal avenues to challenge the issue of the state’s "executive power versus home rule" but said the district should "do that in ways that don’t require us to break the law tonight."

Leon County board members also discussed broader tensions surrounding the subject of masks.

"This controversy has brought out a new low in people. Like the superintendent, I am more upset about the tactics being used, and I don’t mean on one side. I mean on both sides," board member Alva Striplin said.

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Along with Alachua, at least one other school district is moving forward with a mask policy at odds with the Department of Health’s rule.

The Broward County School Board voted Tuesday to enact a mask requirement with an exception only for parents with doctors’ notes --- and subsequently received a letter from Corcoran demanding a change.

Corcoran gave the district until 5 p.m. Friday to provide a written response "documenting how your district is complying" with the Department of Health rule.