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Florida board of education votes to sanction school districts with mask mandates

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran attends a March 2019 meeting of the state Board of Education at the Capitol in Tallahassee. He is the former speaker of the Florida House.
Cat Gloria/WLRN
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran attends a March 2019 meeting of the state Board of Education at the Capitol in Tallahassee. He is the former speaker of the Florida House.

This post has been updated.

The school districts in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties are now in the same boat as their neighbor in Broward: facing state budget cuts as punishment for enforcing strict mask mandates.

The Florida Board of Education voted during a conference call on Thursday afternoon to sanction eight districts — including the three large public school systems in South Florida — for defying state rules that guarantee parents the choice of whether their children wear masks. As of now, the districts are allowing opt outs only for medical reasons.

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The board agreed to dock the funding of each district in the amount of the school board members’ and superintendents’ salaries.

The U.S. Department of Education has reimbursed both the Broward and Alachua county school districts for state funding that has already been withheld because of the ongoing fight over masks. The state board responded Thursday by agreeing to also withhold any amount of money a district receives in those federal grants.

“If the federal government can simply backfill or buy our school districts with grants, then this board's enforcement authority is in essence neutralized, nullified and abolished,” said State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, during the call. “Floridians should be offended by the Biden administration's use of federal taxes in an attempt to make the enforcement of Florida's laws so ineffective.”

Federal education officials responded swiftly on Thursday afternoon, arguing in an email to Corcoran that the action was illegal. A law governing how the awards can be spent states that the federal funds are supposed to be a complement to state money, and the legislation prohibits states from shortchanging school districts as a result of the grants.

In a news release last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona defended the new grant program, dubbed Project SAFE.

“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” he wrote in the release.

Florida’s policy banning mask mandates is under investigation by the federal Department of Education for potentially infringing on the civil rights of students with disabilities or severe medical conditions, who are endangered if their classmates don’t wear masks. A number of legal and administrative challenges are also ongoing.

During Thursday’s meeting, the superintendents in Brevard, Duval and Orange counties said their districts had opened in August without mask mandates, only to see COVID-19 case numbers soar amid the delta variant surge, and they argued they were forced to adopt stricter policies or risk closing schools.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho asked the board to delay imposing sanctions until the end of October when, hopefully, COVID-19 conditions will have improved enough to relax restrictions.

“Tragically, since August, we have lost 14 staff members and one student, and many more have been hospitalized,” said Carvalho during the meeting. “We know masks reduce viral spread. Those who say otherwise are misinformed or misguided."

“We believe that our district is in full compliance with law, reason and science.”

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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