PUNTA GORDA, Fla.—The Florida Board of Education met Tuesday afternoon and voted to “further investigate” two Florida school districts who defied Department of Education and Department of Health rules regarding mask policies.
Broward and Alachua counties are the only 2 of 67 that are currently challenging the rules. More school boards around the state will be meeting this week to discuss mask mandates or amending current policies.
The board recommended to the commissioner that upon the conclusion of the investigation that school board members could be removed from office and/or have funds taken from their districts in the amount of superintendent and board member salaries.
Florida Board of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran presented evidence of probable cause that Alachua and Broward counties were “in direct violation of state law.”
“These districts are picking and choosing which laws they want to follow,” Corcoran said at the emergency meeting. “They swore to an oath to follow the state’s constitution and they have violated that oath.”
Corcoran went on to say that the board members and superintendents swore an oath to uphold the constitution and laws of Florida and are running afoul of their sworn duties by requiring students to wear masks without an opt-out clause for parents.
Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon argued that her district was in compliance.
“Our county is in a state of emergency because our positivity (COVID-19) rates are high,” she said in the meeting. “These parents who do not want to mask their children have an opt-out through the Hope Scholarship.”
One of the two rules that were passed this month pertained to the Hope Scholarship where parents can transfer their children to another school, school district, or private school.
“They (parents) can transfer their children by utilizing the Hope Scholarship, but they will find that most private schools are issuing mask mandates,” Simon argued.
But the board disagreed with Simon’s reasoning and interpretation of the rules.
“You’re comparing district policy to the Hope Scholarship?” board President Tom Grady asked. “If [parents] do not like your policy you’re telling them to go to another school.”
It was the recommendation of Corcoran that the board take action against both districts as they were in non-compliance of the rules.
The board moved unanimously to authorize the commissioner to enforce the rules and sanction the two districts.
Board members made their decision and added terms and conditions to their original motion that gave the commissioner latitude to authorize Corcoran to direct further investigations of the “conduct and actions” of the board members and superintendents of Alachua and Broward counties and if warranted remove officers, take funding equal to the salaries of superintendents and board members and initiate a public records request, and investigate how the school boards are spending their funds.
Last Friday, President Joe Biden had telephoned Broward County Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and had later announced that he would allow these districts to use federal relief funds to offset any financial penalties they may incur as a result of the board’s decision.
Biden said that he supports the district’s decision to stay the course on its mask mandate and reiterated that he “stands ready to help with resources to ensure a safe return to in-person classes.”
Grady questioned Cartwright on how the president knew to reach out to her on a state and local matter.
“He (Biden) expressed words of comfort and support,” Broward Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said at the meeting. “He wanted to know how the community responded to the mandate of which I told him was 190 students out of 260,000 [who] did not want to wear a mask.”
During public comments Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Nikki Fried, identifying herself as the Commissioner of Agriculture, called during the meeting to voice her concern over the board’s rules that were unanimously passed two weeks ago.
“You are threatening to take away the lifeboats of children who cannot get vaccinated,” she said of the opt-out rule.
Fried said she would continue to lobby at the federal level to stop the over-reach of the school board by taking away funding from these school districts.
“Governor DeSantis will continue standing up for the rights of parents to choose what’s best for their own children,” Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Gov. DeSantis said in a written statement on Tuesday evening. “Nikki Fried seems to believe the federal government knows better than families, and that’s just wrong.”
Parents Bill of Rights
Two weeks ago, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ordered the Departments of Health and Education to devise rules to protect parents’ rights.
In an earlier press release from DeSantis’s office described the rules that were passed by the state board and the Department of Health.
“The State Board of Education passed two emergency rules that clarify the eligibility of the Hope Scholarship and provide school districts with flexibilities to ensure the educational continuity of students. The clarification of the Hope Scholarship Program ensures parents know they can transfer their public-school students to a private school or to another district in the state if the student has been subjected to harassment due to personal health care choices a family has a right to make for their minor child.”
The same day that the Florida Board of Education passed their rules, The Florida Department of Health passed a rule that prevents the unnecessary exclusion of students from in-person schooling; safeguards the rights of the parent and their children; provides health protocols of symptomatic or COVID-19 positive students; protocols for students who have had direct contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19; and updates protocols for student show have had prior COVID-19 infections. The rule also requires informed written consent from parents to allow testing of minors in schools.
These rules were designed to prop up the governor’s Parents Bill of Rights which was signed into law in July 2021. Two Florida counties decided to challenge these rules and make their own in recent board meetings and mandate masks without a parent opt-out clause. A medical opt-out was added to their mandates where a child could choose not to wear a mask at the direction of a medical professional. These included medical or psychological waivers such as anxiety-driven diagnosis.
Florida’s surgeon general weighed in after the department of health passed their rule earlier this month.
“The health and wellbeing of our students and educators is of incredible importance, and this rule outlines safety protocols that will allow our children to remain in the school setting,” said Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees in an earlier press release. “Our integrated public health system will continue working closely with the Department of Education and school districts statewide to foster a healthy and productive learning environment for all children in Florida.”