An escalating legal war could be on the horizon for school boards and masks mandates in FL schools

By: - August 31, 2021 4:43 pm

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in May. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel.

The school mask mandate controversy could involve more legal battles, according to school district officials, with Broward and Alachua discussing their legal options after the Florida Department of Education docked pay for the two local boards because they had implemented strict mask mandates.

The move by the DeSantis administration and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran — who believe that parents of schoolchildren, not school boards, should make decisions on mask-wearing — came after a judge ruled verbally Friday that local boards can indeed implement mask mandates.

“I’m very troubled by the state’s action,” Alachua County School District Supt. Carlee Simon said in a written statement on Tuesday. “Our School Board members made a courageous decision to protect the health and lives of students, staff and the people of this community, and a court has already ruled they had the legal right to do so. They deserve praise, not penalties.”

She noted that the Alachua school district is looking into legal action.

“We believe this is a necessary step to ensure that Florida’s districts have the right to act in the best interests of those they serve.”

The statement did not provide further details on the legal front.

Alachua communication staffer Jackie Johnson said that Alachua and Broward, as well as the Orange County School District, are working with attorneys on the matter and awaiting a written court order from Circuit Court Judge John Cooper before pursuing any legal moves.

“We’ll have more information on the specific arguments when there is a formal ruling, which should be in the next couple of days,” Johnson told the Phoenix.

The Broward County School District also released a written statement Tuesday, saying that the board believes its mask policies are complying with state law and rules.

“We continue to receive legal advisement that we are in compliance to the rules as well as to the order,” interim Supt. Vickie Cartwright said during a special school board meeting Tuesday morning. The comments were from a video from the Tuesday board meeting.

Alachua and Broward were the first two districts to implement strict mask mandate policies in response to the rising COVID-19 cases in Florida. Ten other school districts have since followed suit and implemented strict mask mandates. These districts could see similar punitive measures, but it’s not clear yet.

Other than Alachua and Broward, the other school districts that have defied the DeSantis administration’s mask policies are: Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Sarasota, Leon, Duval, Indian River, Orange, Brevard and Lee.

The Department of Education has been sending letters to those or at least some districts that could lead to punitive actions, such as docking pay for local boards.

A press release from the Florida Democratic Party responded to the Department “illegally” withholding the salaries of school board members.

“This announcement is shocking and outrageous,” chairman Manny Diaz said in the written statement. “Just last Friday, a Leon County Judge determined that Governor DeSantis exceeded his authority when he signed an executive order blocking local school boards from enacting mask protocols.

“Yet Commissioner Corcoran has moved forward with these heavy-handed tactics to further the Governor’s unconstitutional efforts to prevent school boards from enacting the health protocols they deem necessary to protect the lives of their students and employees.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.