State education board takes aim at districts over mask mandates

The State Board of Education on Tuesday ratcheted up pressure on officials in two school districts who want student mask mandates with exceptions only for medical reasons, floating the possibility that district leaders who defy state directives could be removed from office.

The board, during an emergency meeting, voted to direct state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to "investigate" the actions of Alachua County and Broward County school officials.

The result could include withholding funds from the districts, state board Chairman Tom Grady said, adding "it may involve withholding salaries, it may involve removing officers, it may involve reviewing district conduct." The state board, however, did not impose such penalties Tuesday.

Grady, a former state House member, also said the board’s moves could include providing a report to the Republican-controlled Legislature to take action.

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The meeting came as Florida continues to see a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. School districts in various parts of the state have grappled with the possibility of requiring masks to try to prevent the spread of the virus.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 30 issued an executive order aimed at preventing districts from requiring students to wear masks. The Florida Department of Health followed by issuing a rule that requires parents to be able to opt out of student mask requirements.

Tuesday’s meeting put on display a power struggle between the state board and local school districts, with the board asserting that Alachua and Broward officials violated the health department’s rule and a new state law known as the "Parents’ Bill of Rights." Alachua and Broward want to require that students have doctors’ notes before they can be exempted from mask requirements.

Corcoran wrote in letters last week to Alachua and Broward officials that the state board would pursue financial penalties if the districts moved forward with requiring doctors’ notes. He threatened withholding "funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board."

In his letters, Corcoran wrote that requiring doctors’ notes to opt out is "inconsistent" with the health department’s rule.

Both of the districts refused to change course last week.

The state board found "probable cause" Tuesday that Alachua and Broward officials "acted contrary to the law" by requiring doctors’ notes.

But Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon doubled down on an earlier argument that the district is in compliance with the Department of Health rule.

RELATED: Florida admits state cannot withhold salaries of superintendents who mandate masks in school districts

Simon argued to the state board that the Alachua district allows two avenues for parents to opt-out: by showing medical reasons or through a voucher program that the state board expanded to allow students to transfer to private schools based on "COVID-19 harassment."

Simon also said she and Alachua school board members are following their constitutional duties to provide a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system" of public schools.

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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.

As of Monday, the Hillsborough County School District said 5,599 students are either in isolation due to a positive case or in quarantine due to exposure. That's an increase of about 1,200 students from Friday when officials said 4,477 students had to be quarantined