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Corcoran Ramps Up Salary Threat To School Officials Over Masks

Richard Corcoran
The Florida Channel
The Florida Channel
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran reiterated the governor's position that parents should be able to decide whether children wear masks.

Leon and Alachua officials decided to require parents to submit doctors’ notes for children to be exempt, drawing objections from the education commissioner. Broward officials could be next after a Tuesday vote.

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is looking to enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ threat to withhold the salaries of school officials in Alachua and Leon counties if they don’t comply with a state rule aimed at allowing parents to decide whether children wear masks in school.

Corcoran’s letters came a day after a DeSantis spokeswoman said the Board of Education would pursue penalties against school officials, rather than the overall districts, “as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law.”

Officials in Broward County could receive similar attention after voting Tuesday to maintain a mask mandate with no opportunty for parents to opt out except for medical conditions or requirements of an individual education plan.

DeSantis issued an executive order on July 30 that says parents must be able to make the decision on whether their children wear masks in school during the COVID-19 pandemic. That led to the state Department of Health approving an emergency rule that requires allowing parents to opt out of mask requirements implemented by local school boards.

Leon and Alachua decided to require parents to submit doctors’ notes for children to be exempt from wearing masks - drawing objections from Corcoran.

“The emergency rule does not require parents to submit medical documentation from a physician or a nurse practitioner in order to opt out, and any such requirement is inconsistent with the emergency rule,” Corcoran wrote in nearly identical letters Monday to leaders of both districts.

Corcoran reiterated DeSantis’ position that parents should be able to decide whether children wear masks.

“There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children,” Corcoran wrote.

Alachua Board Chair Calls Letter “Threatening”

Corcoran addressed his letters to Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, Leon County School Board Chairwoman Georgia “Joy” Bowen, Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon and Alachua County School Board Chairwoman Leanetta McNealy.

The only difference between Corcoran’s two letters was a deadline for the districts to provide written responses “documenting how your district is complying” with the Department of Health rule. For Alachua, that deadline was 5 p.m. Tuesday; for Leon, it is 5 p.m. Wednesday.

“Depending on the facts presented, I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board,” Corcoran said.

McNealy called Corcoran’s letter to Alachua school officials “threatening” but said during an online news conference hosted by the Florida Democratic Party that the district doesn’t plan to change course.

“We will not switch. I can only speak from my position, I am not going to switch, and I have three other colleagues who sit with me (on the board). I think just from my gut feeling, and from what the surge and spike (in COVID-19 cases) is in Alachua County, I don’t see any of them wanting to switch as well,” McNealy said.

Before the news conference began, participants talked about DeSantis and Corcoran threatening to withhold salaries, and McNealy responded, “let them go right ahead.”

Asked by The News Service of Florida whether Leon County schools would reverse course on requiring doctors’ notes after Corcoran’s letter, district spokesman Chris Petley said Tuesday afternoon the district did not have a statement on the matter.

Previously, Hanna backed DeSantis’ approach to mask wearing, saying students and their families should decide that for themselves. But he later backtracked after the number of pediatric COVID infections began to rise. More than two dozen pediatricians in Leon County signed on to a letter urging Hanna to put a mask mandate in place.

“Sometimes we may agree to disagree but lets do it in a respectful manner," said Hanna, who described the issue as an "emotional" one for him. "We all want what’s best, we do. I just think this is the wise decision on what’s going on here in Tallahassee and Leon County with the numbers we’re seeing.”

"Bring It," Broward Official Says After Vote

Broward's school board passed its mandate by an 8-1 vote at Tuesday's meeting. Lori Alhadeff, who was elected to the board after her daughter Alyssa was killed in the 2018 Parkland school shooting, was the dissenting vote.

“Being afraid that we're going to lose our job, be removed from office, fined, lose our salary — bring it! Bring it,” said board member Nora Rupert. “Because when you put that out there, it makes me work harder for our school children and our families.”

Union leaders representing tens of thousands of district employees were among those asking Broward board members to challenge DeSantis during the meeting.

“Our people are out in the front lines every day,” said Jim Silvernale, who works for the Federation of Public Employees, which represents non-instructional employees, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and maintenance staff. “They're concerned. They're scared. We want to see the mask mandate.”

The Broward board also approved a plan to hire an outside lawyer to challenge order on salaries. It wouldn't be the first legal challenged related to the issue. A Leon County circuit judge has scheduled a hearing Friday in a lawsuit filed by parents challenging DeSantis' executive order.

Hearing Slated On Emergency Motion

Attorneys for a dozen parents from Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Alachua, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties claim that the order violates parts of the state Constitution. Circuit Judge John Cooper will hear arguments on an emergency motion for an injunction against the order.

The lawsuit, in part, alleges that the order violates part of the Constitution that requires the provision of a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system” of public schools. It contends that preventing school districts from requiring masks threatens the safety of schools.

White House Wants To Cover Lost Wages

President Joe Biden, who has locked horns with DeSantis on COVID mitigation measures in schools, is weighing whether to intervene. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the administration is working out how to send American Rescue Plan dollars to officials to help cover lost wages, if needed.

“The American Rescue Plan funds that were distributed to Florida to provide assistance to schools have not yet been distributed from the state level. So the question is why not? And those can be used to cover expenses,” she said.

Psaki says these federal dollars are under the Biden administration’s purview, not the state’s.

“Get out of the way and let public officials, let local officials do their job to keep students safe. This is serious and we’re talking about people’s lives. And we know based on public health guidelines that even though kids under a certain age are not yet eligible [for vaccines]."

Tampa Democrat: "Delta Is Different"

As the school year begins this week in many districts, DeSantis questioned whether the delta variant of the coronavirus is responsible for an increase in children being admitted to hospitals, saying "you've not seen a change in the proportion of the young people who end up being admitted" to the hospital.

However, Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who is an attorney, argued that “delta is different” than the initial version of the virus that rocked the state last year. “We’re starting to see hospitalizations of children, which is not something that we saw in the first wave,” Driskell said.

Meantime, the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, released the results of a survey Tuesday showing there are nearly 5,000 teaching vacancies throughout the state. According to the union, that's nearly 40% more unfilled than two years ago.

The following contributed to this report: Jim Saunders of News Service of Florida, Lynn Hatter of WFSU, Jessica Bakeman of WLRN and Danielle Prieur of WMFE.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida