School entrance sign. Photo, CD Davidson-Hiers
In a strong rebuff to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, Leon School Supt. Rocky Hanna has stated emphatically that the state’s emergency rule on masks has been misinterpreted and would violate the Florida Constitution.
Leon, in Florida’s state capital and at the center of a court case on the contentious mask issue, is one of several districts required to respond to Corcoran indicating whether local boards will comply with a mask policy that would allow parents to decide to opt out of mask-wearing for their children. Local boards would not make those decisions.
Currently, more than a dozen districts have implemented strict mask mandates, with opt outs only for medical reasons. And a court ruling last Friday found that local school board mask mandates are legal.
The Leon County School District letter opens with:
“Although we appreciate your ‘grave’ concern regarding our technical compliance with the DOH (Department of Health) Rule,” the letter opens, “our priority is protecting the health and safety of the over 34,000 students, 2,400 teachers and 4,300 employees in the Leon County Schools from a pandemic that has resulted in 43,979 deaths in Florida.”
Hanna says its district is already following the emergency rule “based on its actual language,” which does not directly restrict districts from placing a medical requirement in order to opt out of mask mandates. Hanna says that following Corcoran’s interpretation of the emergency rule would “violate the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes” and put the district at risk of lawsuits.
“In order for us to comply with your interpretation of the DOH (Department of Health) Rule, we would need to ignore guidelines from the CDC, face federal lawsuits, and act contrary to the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes.”
Hanna’s letter informs Corcoran that the Florida Constitution grants school boards the authority to oversee local school operations and gives Florida students the right to a “safe” school system.
Hanna’s letter also states that Florida law says that K-12 public schools should remain open to the greatest extent possible during an extended public health emergency “so long as the health and safety of students and school personnel can be maintained by specific public health mitigation strategies recommended by federal or state health agencies for educational settings.”
Hanna also notes that new guidance from the CDC recommends universal mask wearing in schools as justification for the district’s mask policy.
The letter also highlights a Friday ruling from Judge John Cooper in Leon County Circuit Court that 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 as of Thursday.
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…”
Several other districts have responded to Corcoran and education officials defending their strict mask policies, and presented similar cases for why their mask mandates are legal. Those districts are Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange, Duval, Sarasota and Indian River.
Other letters are forthcoming from other districts.
Two school boards have already faced consequences from the state for their mask policies by withholding pay from board members — Alachua and Broward.
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