Some school districts sticking to their mask policies; others unsure following new court decision

By: - September 10, 2021 4:49 pm

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

Some schools districts say they’re staying put on their strict mask mandates, while others are considering how to proceed following yet another court decision on mask policies in schools.

In a Friday decision, the First District Court of Appeal allowed the DeSantis administration and state education officials to continue enforcing a contentious policy which allows parents to opt their child out of a mask mandate while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The Alachua County School District in the Gainesville area is staying strong on its mask policy.

“Despite the threat of continued sanctions, we will continue to enforce universal masking in our schools,” Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a written statement.

But others are not so sure.

“Our School Board has a regularly scheduled meeting next Tuesday and will consider then,” a Volusia County School District communications staffer said in an email to the Phoenix.

The district, located on the Atlantic Coast of Florida, is one of the more recent districts implementing a mask mandate that only allows medical exemptions, rather than letting parents opt out for any reason.

Meanwhile, the Brevard County School District just south of Volusia recently put in place a similar mask mandate for their students.

“My anticipation is that it’s (the mask policy) not going to change based on the court’s decision today,” said Russell Bruhn, communications staffer with Brevard County Schools.

Some districts that have been involved for awhile in the mask controversy are more definitive about whether the appellate ruling will affects their mask policy.

Chris Petley, communications staffer with the Leon County School District in the state capital, said that the district will “absolutely” continue with its mask policy regardless of what came down at the appellate court Friday.

Tanya Arja, a communications staffer with the Hillsborough County School District in the Tampa Bay area, said in email to the Phoenix that “there are no changes to our mask mandate.”

“We continue to monitor this case as it winds its way through the court on appeals,” she said. “Regardless of the outcome of the litigation, our mask mandate with a medical exemption parent opt-out complies with the emergency rule issued by the Department of Health and the Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

The Parents’ Bill of Rights is a new law establishing that Florida state agencies, including school districts, may not infringe on a parent’s right to direct the upbringing, education, and health care of their child, “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest…”

The emergency rule established by the Department of Health 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.”

Through that rule and law, the DeSantis administration has determined that certain school districts with strict mask mandates are not complying with Florida law. State education officials have begun withholding the pay of two local school boards, Alachua and Broward, for having such strict mandates. Other districts may face similar sanctions.

However, the Biden administration has verbally supported Florida’s local districts in trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Just Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education announced a grant program to reimburse school districts facing financial penalties for implementing mitigation strategies recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), such as mask mandates.

The grant is called Project SAFE — which stands for “Supporting America’s Families and Educators.”

“Local school districts would be able to apply for Project SAFE grants that will allow them to restore funding withheld by state leaders—such as for school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut—when a school district implemented strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” according to a Wednesday press release from the U.S. Department of Education.

Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon referenced the federal grant in a written statement.

“Fortunately, we have a number of options for replacing funding taken by the state. Those options include the Project SAFE grant announced yesterday by the U.S. Education Department,” she said.

“Ultimately, we firmly believe we are acting legally and responsibly to protect our students and our communities from the spread of COVID. We will continue to exercise our constitutional obligation to maintain a safe environment for everyone in our schools.”

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, 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.