The Florida State Board of Education (BOE) announced Thursday that eight school districts across the state could potentially face sanctions and funding cuts if they do not comply with rules regarding mask-wearing in schools.
The eight districts would see their funding slashed in amounts that are equal to their respective board members’ salaries, the BOE said. The announcement came at an emergency meeting, where it was told that the eight districts must follow state guidelines that have been imposed by the health department. The BOE stated that the districts have 48 hours to comply with the demands before the cutbacks will began.
This decision by the BOE came at the suggestion of Richard Cocoran, the Florida Education Commissioner, who initially proposed sanctions against the districts as a way to get them to fall in line with the state guidelines.
These specific guidelines state that the wearing of masks in Florida schools should fully be the decision of each students’ parents. This follows the Florida surgeon general’s announcement that parents should be fully be allowed to decide whether or not their children should quarantine after exposure to the coronavirus. Both of these guidelines go against the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The eight districts that are holding out represent some of the state’s largest school districts, including Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach. While many state leaders, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have argued that mask mandates in schools go against individual freedoms, school officials across the eight districts have vehemently disagreed, saying that the issue is not about personal liberties.
“Let’s be clear. We are in complete support of parents having individual rights and freedoms,” said Leon County superintendent Rocky Hanna while speaking to the BOE. The school officials also stated that the decision by Governor DeSantis to support these sanctions will hinder the state’s ability to fight rising COVID cases.
“We’ve been partners at every turn and it has worked,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said, stating that the recent actions by Florida politicians are a stark contrast from 2020, when the districts worked more harmoniously with the state government in order to stop the virus.
Corcoran has stated that there is only a difference of 2 percent in regards to COVID positivity rates in schools with mask mandates versus schools without. “Weeks of positivity rate data now shows no difference in districts with unlawful mask mandates versus those communities that protect parents’ rights,” he said in a statement obtained by Newsweek.
However, a recent CDC study completed in Arizona found that schools that didn’t require masks were 3.5 times more likely to have a significant COVID outbreak than schools that did have mask mandates.
In anticipation of potential sanctions, the White House launched a federal grant program that would reimburse the districts for any amount they might lose. The Alachua and Broward districts both applied for the program and were respectively penalized by the BOE $147,000 and $420,000, the amounts of their grants.
Ian Rosenblum, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education, sent a letter to Corcoran stating that the sanctions were illegal, citing the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The act does not typically let individual states factor in federal funding when deciding how much money to give to a district.
The Florida Department of Education stated in a press release that “elected school board members in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Palm Beach counties have willingly and knowingly violated the rights of students and parents by denying them the option to make personal and private health care and educational decisions for their children.”
“Every school board member and every school superintendent has a duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not. While the district school board may not agree with the safety protocols set forth by the [Florida] Surgeon General, the Surgeon General is the person who, under the law, sets protocols to mitigate COVID-19 in schools,” said State Board of Education Chair Tom Grady in the same press release.