TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The State Board of Education on Thursday ratcheted up discipline against eight county school boards that have maintained student mask mandates to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The crackdown intensified the battle over whether school districts can set student mask requirements, a debate that is also playing out in courts.
Board members backed a recommendation by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to financially penalize school boards in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties.
The districts in Hillsborough, Sarasota and Indian River counties had been targeted for penalties but were dropped from the state board’s list after officials voted to repeal mask requirements this week.
State board Chairman Tom Grady set the tone for Thursday’s meeting, attempting to stave off debate over scientific evidence about the efficacy of masks by local school officials and members of the public who spoke.
"Today’s meeting is not about whether masks work. It’s not about whether you like mask mandates from a particular district or not. It’s not about your personal beliefs. It’s not about what the science means. It’s not particularly about the old rules, which have now been rescinded. And perhaps most importantly, it’s not about politics --- it’s about the kids, and what’s best for the kids that are under our charge as a governing organization for the schools in the state of Florida," Grady said at the outset of the conference-call meeting.
Corcoran recommended that each of the eight districts be given 48 hours to rescind mask requirements and comply with a revamped state Department of Health rule that puts student mask decisions "at the parent or legal guardian’s sole discretion."
Should the school boards keep their mask mandates in place, Corcoran recommended each be penalized financially in an amount equal to the monthly salaries of board members. Corcoran also took aim at an attempt by President Joe Biden’s administration to reimburse school districts for those penalties.
The state began withholding money equal to the salaries of board members in Alachua and Broward counties on Aug. 31. In response, the federal government last month awarded $150,000 to Alachua County to cover the salaries of four school board members and $420,000 to backfill salaries for eight Broward County board members.
As part of the penalties, Corcoran also recommended withholding money to the eight districts in amounts equal to any federal funding they receive.
The federal funding was awarded through a grant program titled Project SAFE, or Supporting America’s Families and Educators.
"I strongly believe that this federal grant program improperly attempts to interfere with the state board’s authority to manage our state’s educational system. Education is a state responsibility, not a federal one, and one given to this board under our state’s Constitution," Corcoran said.
Corcoran characterized the grants as an attempt by the federal government to "buy off school districts" and to "neutralize and abolish" the state board’s enforcement authority.
Corcoran’ attempt to head off federal aid drew an immediate rebuke from the U.S. Department of Education.
Ian Rosenblum, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs, wrote Thursday in an email to Corcoran that the issue "raises legal concerns" regarding part of a federal law that funds the SAFE grant program.
Rosenblum quoted from a part of the federal law that said states "shall not take into consideration payments under this act ... in determining the eligibility of any local educational agency in that state for state aid, or the amount of state aid, with respect to free public education of children."
Officials from each district penalized Thursday were given five minutes to make their case to Corcoran and the state board. Many used their time to criticize measures the state has taken to prevent local mask mandates.
Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon took aim at the state’s revised Department of Health rule, which was issued Sept. 22. The rule and an earlier version were designed to carry out an executive order issued July 30 by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
"The real emergency is that the Florida Department of Health has turned its back on the state’s mission: protect, promote and improve the health of all people in Florida through integrated state, county and community efforts," Simon said. "Tying the hands of school officials who are dealing with a highly transmissible and potentially life-threatening virus will not protect … the health of Florida’s citizens, particularly our children."
Thursday’s meeting riled Democratic state officials.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who also is running for governor in 2022, held a news conference Thursday morning before the state board meeting to present data compiled by her office that she said proves mask mandates lower COVID-19 spread in schools.
"Masks work. The kids are safer wearing masks in school during this pandemic. School districts requiring masks had lower cases, per capita, than those that did not," Fried said.
Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, was among several lawmakers who criticized the state board’s actions in a statement from the House Democratic Office.
"I stand by the school districts, parents, principals and teachers who are making endless sacrifices at great distances to keep our students and the community safe as we continue to navigate the pandemic in the school year," Alexander said.
Six districts on Wednesday challenged the health department’s revised rule dealing with mask requirements. The revamped rule also allows parents to decide whether children go to school after being exposed to people with COVID-19. Attorneys for the school boards in Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Duval, Alachua and Leon counties filed the challenge at the state Division of Administrative Hearings.