School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers
Eight school district superintendents pled their cases Thursday to the State Board of Education, to keep strict mask mandates in their districts for the safety of children and staff.
Instead, they were punished and it was expected, following Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s earlier recommendations.
In a conference call meeting, the State Board of Education on Thursday officially determined that eight Florida school boards are not complying with Florida law and an emergency rule on DeSantis administration mask policies and will be docked pay.
The state also will withhold state funding equal to any federal grant awarded to districts to supplement lost pay, according to the state board, which approved the punishments without a roll call vote.
That’s a reference to the Biden administration’s new grant program that provides reimbursement to school districts facing penalties from the state for implementing mask mandates that comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Two school districts, Alachua and Broward, have already lost pay, but they were in front of the board again on Thursday, because of an updated emergency rule.
The other six districts are Brevard, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach. The local board member pay is in the low to high $40,000s.
The eight superintendents argued that their policies were compliant with state laws, and some criticized the new emergency rule, which requires schools to allow students to opt out of wearing mask at the “sole discretion” of parents.
“I find it ironic we are spending so much time and resources arguing about the temporary inconvenience of wearing a mask,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Board of Education over the conference call.
The DeSantis administration has been adamant about providing a parental opt-out and wants to leave the decision for students to wear masks at school up to parents, citing Florida law and a new emergency Department of Health rule to protect what they call “parents’ rights” to direct the upbringing of their children.
But the Florida Constitution authorizes school boards to oversee the operation of their local schools. The eight districts with strict mask policies argue that their mandates are to protect children and staff from COVID-19.
“We believed that requiring face masks in our schools was the best way to protect students and staff,” Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins told the Board of Education Thursday. “The action was necessary.”
The question over who has ultimate authority over schools during a pandemic — local school boards or the state — has sparked several legal challenges.
Democratic lawmakers in the state House responded swiftly to the punishment cast on eight school board members who implemented strict mask mandates:
“I stand by the school districts, parents, principals, and teachers who are making endless sacrifices at great distances to keep our students and the community safe as we continue to navigate the pandemic in the school year. We must continue to do all we can to support their leadership, heroic acts, and ongoing support to provide Florida students with a safe, high-quality education,” said Rep. Ramon Alexander, representing Gadsden County and part of Leon, in the state capital.
State Rep. Angie Nixon, of Jacksonville, said: “It’s a shame that politics has put Governor DeSantis’ Board of Education at odds with local schools trying to protect our kids. Local officials studied the science and chose to follow the recommendations of medical experts, and for that the state is threatening to withhold funding. The majority of Floridians support requiring children to wear masks to protect them from the deadly Delta Variant.”
Rep. Yvonne Hinson, representing parts of Alachua and Marion, said, “They (the State Board of Education) wanted to play politics and attack school districts who had the audacity to protect children and stand against the Governor. I’m proud of the Alachua School Board for fighting to protect our kids.”
State Rep. Robin Bartleman, representing of Broward, said ““I am disappointed in the State Board of Education’s decision to sanction local school districts. School board members are duly elected constitutional officers and must be allowed to make local decisions in the best interest of their students and staff. The health and safety of their students is their highest priority; masks reduce viral spread and data from the CDC supports this strategy.”
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