Broward school board becomes latest to defy DeSantis by imposing mask mandate in schools

The Florida Department of Education threatened to withhold the salaries of the Broward County superintendent and the members of the school board after the board voted to defy Governor Ron DeSantis' executive order barring mask mandates in schools.

"This letter is sent to express my grave concern regarding your district's significant neglect in response to the recently adopted Emergency Rule," Richard Corcoran, the DOE commissioner, wrote in a letter to the superintendent and chair of the school board. The order, which Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued on August 6, lays out clear "expectations for ensuring that any mandated mask policies imposed by a district or school ‘must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.’"

Corcoran announced that he would initiate an investigation, "demanding that you provide a written response by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, August 13." Depending on the results of the investigation, "I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the Department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the Superintendent and all the members of the School Board," he warned.

RELATED: Florida education commissioner ramps up DeSantis' threat to school officials over mask mandates

On Tuesday, the Fort Lauderdale-area Broward County School Board voted to maintain the school district's mask mandate, which dates back to July 28. The delta variant of COVID-19 has sparked a new rise in coronavirus cases. The board voted 8-1 to keep the mandate in place, allowing exceptions for health and safety concerns.

"You can't ignore this pandemic. It's deadly, and it's getting worse instead of better and the more we don't use masks, the more we position the mutation of this virus to grow," Rosalind Osgood, the school board chair, said during a special board meeting Tuesday. She later told CNN that she would not "risk and play Russian roulette" with children who cannot get vaccinated. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are less likely to contract COVID-19, experience severe symptoms, or die from the disease – though they added that the data did not account for new variants of the virus. The CDC still recommends face masks indoors, physical distancing, and screening testing for schools. 

RELATED: Alachua schools stay course on mask requirement despite threats

The Florida surgeon general's health order does not require parents to submit medical documentation from a physician or nurse practitioner to opt out of mask mandates. DOE Commissioner Corcoran noted that because the rule invokes the Parent's Bill of Rights, "it does not contemplate or allow school districts to limit those rights by adding additional requirements in order to opt out and any such requirement is inconsistent with the emergency rule.

"The action taken today at the Broward County School Board meeting makes it clear that you have no current intentions of complying with this order," Corcoran wrote. "There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children."

The surgeon general's order followed Governor DeSantis' executive order last month, which effectively bans school systems from imposing mask mandates.

RELATED: CARES Act funds could be used to pay salaries of school officials who impose mask mandates: White House

Some Republicans have disagreed with DeSantis' ban.

"I do disagree with Governor DeSantis. The local officials should have control here," Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told CNN about the ban. "I'm a conservative. I think you govern best when you govern closest to the people being governed. And if a local community is having their ICU is full and the people at the local schools see that they've got to make sure they stay open because otherwise children miss out for another year of school and they put in policy, then the local officials should be listened to. That is a conservative principle."

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