Several school boards buck DeSantis administration and defend their own strict mask policies

By: - September 1, 2021 7:03 pm

Young girls wearing protective masks running on sidewalk. Getty Images.

Meeting a 5 p.m. deadline by the state, at least four district school boards defended their strict mask policies to the Florida Department of Education, the State Board of Education and Commissioner Richard Corcoran – even if it means losing their salaries.

The local boards wrote in a letter to the state that they are complying with Florida law as well as a recent court ruling on the mask mandates, and that strict requirements on mask-wearing are designed to protect children from COVID-19.

Nonetheless, state education officials could take punitive action by cutting local board members’ salaries.

The school boards of several counties were required to respond in writing Wednesday to education officials, about masks at schools and who has control over the issue.

The DeSantis administration says parents, not local school boards, should make decisions on masks for their children. But under the Florida Constitution, school boards have the power to make those decisions.  And a court ruling last Friday found that local school board mask mandates are legal.

State education officials claim that several districts are not complying with state law and rules, and is already punishing school boards. Elected school board members at two districts — Alachua and Broward– have already lost pay because they implemented strict mask mandates.

So far, four districts have presented their cases in a letter to the state education officials: Hillsborough, Orange, Miami-Dade and Duval. And each district claims that their measures are appropriate given the COVID-19 surge in Florida right now. They also believe their policies do comply with state laws, and they can implement strict mask mandates that do not include a parent opt-out.

However, state emergency rules 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.”

“The DOH (Department of Health) rule does not state the opt-out must be unlimited, or otherwise prevent schools from establishing parameters for the opt-out,” the Duval school board’s letter said. The Hillsborough letter made a similar argument.

The Orange County School Board noted that because students under the age of 12 do not have access to a COVID vaccine and because social distancing is more difficult this school year, a mask mandate with only a medical opt-out is the “best way for controlling the spread of COVID-19 in schools, especially in light of the highly contagious Delta variant.”

Most of the responses to the state education officials cited a Friday ruling from Judge John Cooper in Leon County Circuit Court in the state capital, which says mask mandates are legal. Cooper enjoined the Board of Education, the Department of Education and Commissioner Corcoran from penalizing school districts with strict mandates so long as they are reasonable.

The ruling was given verbally and a written order has not yet been released.

This ruling centers around a new Florida law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which says that the state shall not infringe on a parents’ right to direct the upbringing and health care of a child “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest…”

The Miami-Dade letter noted that: “As the Court ruled, it is pursuant to the Parents’ Bill of Rights that school districts have the right to enact mask mandates in accordance to their constitutional duty… to provide safe, secure schools, as long as the mandates are reasonable, based on a compelling interest, are narrowly tailored, and are the least restrictive means available.”

The school boards of Leon, Indian River and Palm Beach and Sarasota counties are also expected to send a response to the state education officials.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.