Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran at a Board of Education meeting July 14, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
The State Board of Education floated the possibility Tuesday of removing local school district officers who vote to impose mask mandates on their students, on the ground that doing so breaks Florida law.
The board invited Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to investigate the matter and take all legal steps to enforce these laws, including the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has invoked to justify his policy of granting parents and guardians a veto over whether their kids must wear masks to reduce COVID transmission.
“And that may include withholding funds from the district,” board chairman Tom Grady said in proposing the move.
“It may involve withholding salaries. It may involve removing officers. It may involve reviewing district conduct. It may involve public-records requests to see how monies are being spent within the district, including whether they’re being spent for public relations or political purposes contrary to their constitutional mandate. It would include enhanced reporting and accountability to this board,” he said.
The board approved Grady’s motion during a conference call as applied to the Broward and Alachua county school districts, where boards have imposed mask mandates on schoolchildren absent medical documentation that they should not wear them.
Both Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon and Broward Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright insisted, when given five minutes to address the state board, that their policies are legal, considering that parents who object qualify for state scholarships to attend private schools or public schools in districts that don’t mandate masks.
At issue are the DeSantis administration’s efforts to ensure that Florida parents can direct the “upbringing, education, and health care” of their students, including an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis and emergency rule from the Department of Health, under the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”
A new Department of Health rule says, in part: “Students may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.”
In memos published on the Department of Education’s website Tuesday morning, Corcoran argued that these districts are not complying with the state policy, which does not require medical documentation to opt-out.
Some parents who called into the board meeting to offer public comments argued that local board members who impose mask mandates should be fired. But others were in favor of Alachua’s and Broward’s mask policies.
Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, who is campaigning to be the Democratic nominee in the 2022 gubernatorial election against DeSantis, called into the emergency meeting during public comments. She has been critical of DeSantis’ handling of the COVID pandemic and has been in contact with White House officials on such matters.
“If you vote to defund school district for protecting their students,” Fried said, “I will continue to work with the White House to refund schools and make sure history records your unconstitutional, partisan decisions. And I assure you that if you remove these duly elected constitutional officers, it will not hold up in the courts.”
In a new campaign ad, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, another contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, criticized the administration for not allowing districts to mandate masks.
“Florida leads the nation in new COVID cases, jammed hospitals, and deaths,” Crist says in the ad. “And now, Ron DeSantis wants to defund schools where they’re asking kids to wear a mask? That’s not what we need. We need common sense and we need to do what’s right.”
Meanwhile, other school boards may join in the fight.
The Hillsborough county school board announced an emergency meeting for Wednesday at 1 p.m. to consider mitigation strategies for COVID, including a potential mask mandate for all students and staff, according to the Hillsborough school district website.
The Miami Herald reported that Miami-Dade County School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho agrees with a task force recommendation for a mask mandate at the start of the school year, and that the board will consider one on Wednesday.
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