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Alachua, Broward Found In Violation Of School Mask Rules, Face Penalties

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Daylina Miller
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has recommended both districts be punished, which could include withholding funds or even removal of leaders from office.

School districts in Broward and Alachua counties could face penalties — including the removal of leaders from office — after the Florida Board of Education determined Tuesday they are in violation of state rules on mask mandates.

In an emergency meeting, the board ruled that the district's policies violate rules issued by the Florida Department of Health enacted to enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order that districts allow parents to decide whether their children wear masks in schools to protect against COVID-19.

Broward and Alachua are only allowing mask opt outs if students provide a medical excuse signed by a physician or therapist.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said medical opt-outs are not acceptable.

“Every school board member and superintendent has the duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran said during the meeting, held via conference call.

Board chair Tom Grady outlined the potential consequences the districts could face.

“That may include withholding funds from the district — although I would add a footnote that I do not want to withhold funds in a way that would harm any child in any district,” Grady said.

“It may involve withholding salaries. It may involve removing officers. It may involve reviewing district conduct. It may involve public records requests to see how monies are being spent within the district, including whether they're being spent for public relations or political purposes contrary to their constitutional mandate. It would include enhanced reporting and accountability to this board.

“And I would also add a report to the Legislature with recommendations for the Legislature … to take whatever additional steps may be necessary.”

During the nearly three-hour meeting, board members grilled Broward interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon.

Cartwright argued the regulations were broad and did not expressly prohibit the district’s strategy of requiring a medical professional’s approval to “opt out” of wearing masks.

“The language is very general and absent of specificity. So when we’re looking at this, we believe we are in compliance because we are providing provisions for parents who have a medical reason for their child not to wear a face covering to go ahead and follow a process," she said.

She also defended the district’s position by outlining the alarming COVID-19 conditions in Broward County, including increasing hospitalizations of children.

Cartwright has only been in the interim post three weeks after the resignation Robert Runcie, who is fighting a perjury charge related to a state investigation of the 2018 Parkland school shooting.

Cartwright also reiterated the argument she made in a letter to Corcoran last week: The district is facing a lawsuit from parents of students with disabilities and severe medical conditions who argue they would not be able to send their children to school safely unless masks are mandatory.

“When we start taking away the rights of students with disabilities — because we're unable to provide them with a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment — that is something that is very alarming to us,” said Cartwright, referencing federal laws that protect students with disabilities’ access to education.

Simon said Alachua is following the rules — noting the policy allows parents to use the HOPE scholarship for bullied students if they disagree with the mask rules. Simon also said her district’s policy is in place due to the county being in a state of emergency.

“At this point, we know that COVID is being brought into our school. We have cases where parents have tested positive and they bring their children to school. We know that children are showing systems, have been tested and have been dropped off to school while parents are waiting for test results," Simon said.

Corcoran, meanwhile — pushed back against the Biden administration’s efforts to head off any punishments that involve funding. The administration has promised to backfill districts if they lose money — something Corcoran believes amounts to hypocrisy, because the U.S. Department of Education refused to allow the state to use a portion of its education stimulus money to award bonuses to teachers.

“It's no coincidence that it's Florida,” Corcoran said. “I mean, they talk more about our governor and the state in their press conferences than any other state. We wonder why.”

Grady asked Cartwright about a call she received from President Joe Biden. He inquired whether the president asked “about the emotional well-being of kids who may be unable to wear masks to school.”

“He was asking about how the community was responding to the decision that the board had made, and did we have a lot of people speaking out against face coverings,” Cartwright said. “The response that I provided to him was that, overwhelmingly, the amount of communication that was sent to our school board was in support of face coverings.”

Grady also asked about a call Cartwright received from U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardon that was set up by the Council of Great City Schools. Cartwright said, “I'm not really sure what the bearing is of that conversation on today's discussion.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called in to deliver testimony during the public comment portion of the meeting. She’s a Democrat looking to unseat DeSantis in next year’s gubernatorial election.

“I will continue to work with the White House to refund schools and make sure history records your unconstitutional partisan decisions,” Fried said. “I assure you that if you remove these duly elected constitutional officers, it will not hold up in the courts.”

The emergency conference call was held the night before the Education Board will convene for its regularly scheduled meeting in Miami. Also Wednesday, the Miami-Dade County school board plans to discuss its own mask policy for when classes begin next week.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.
Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.