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Three More School Districts Go With Strict Mask Mandates As Feds Suggest Civil Rights Probe

 Hillsborough School Board held an emergency meeting
Hillsborough County School Board
Hillsborough's school board held an emergency meeting Wednesday night and voted to go with mask mandates that do not include parental opt-outs.

Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Palm Beach remove parental opt-outs in defiance of the governor as President Biden calls for legal action against states that block health measures to protect students.

The Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Hillsborough county school districts on Wednesday became the third, fourth and fifth school districts in Florida to adopt stricter mask mandates in defiance of a governor’s executive order against such action.

The votes come the same day President Joe Biden ordered U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cordona to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students. The Education Department said it could investigate possible civil rights violations over such actions.

The Hillsborough County school board voted 5-2 to adopt a 30-day mask mandate with a medical opt-out for students, teachers and staff. Miami-Dade’s school board passed a similar mandate with a medical exemption by a 7-1 vote. Palm Beach's vote was 6-1.

A day earlier, the state Board of Education announced that Broward and Alachua counties faced threats of severe penalties for defying the executive order, which says parents should decide whether their children wear masks.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said medical exemptions were not acceptable. Most districts with mask requirements allow parents to opt out without medical exemptions.

Miami-Dade, the state’s largest school district with about 334,000 students, will mandate masks when classes start next week. The medical exemptions will be based on recommendations of the district’s public health advisers. The board also amended a proposal to remove religious exemptions.

“The stakes are too high for us to not do everything we can to ensure the safety of our children,” school board member Marta Perez said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Lubby Navarro, the dissenting vote, argued it was the board’s duty to uphold state laws and regulations, not challenge them. Board member Christi Fraga was absent from Wednesday's meeting.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho appeared at a state Board of Education meeting Wednesday morning, at Miami Dade College, telling the members he would also be willing to risk facing sanctions himself.

“For the consequences associated with doing the right thing … I will wear proudly as a badge of honor,” Carvalho said.

Hillsborough will require masks be worn in county schools for the next 30 days beginning immediately. It allows parents to opt out if they get a medical waiver from their doctor. It also exempts students who got a waiver last year from wearing masks.

During a nearly five-hour meeting Wednesday in Tampa, board Chairwoman Lynn Gray said there are more than 10,000 students and district employees in isolation after being exposed to COVID during the first week and a half of school.

Hillsborough is Florida’s third-largest district with more than 206,000 students.

"Quarantining is out of hand," Gray said. "I would say by next week, if we continue, we will see perhaps double. We cannot sustain any longer the plethora of our children who are being quarantined — they are not getting an education. Two weeks out of a month is not an education."

Melissa Snively was one of two board members who voted no.

“I have no interest today in breaking the law," she said. "We've gotten an executive order from the governor of our state. We have seen what the ramifications have been yesterday, were, and could be."

The board went against the recommendation of Superintendent Addison Davis, who said because of the threat of the state withholding funds, they should continue the current practice of requiring masks and allowing parents to opt out.

Board attorney Jim Porter acknowledged the move could lead to conflict with DeSantis and state education officials.

Before the vote, a long line of parents spoke out both in favor and opposed to mask mandates.

On Wednesday, DeSantis said the districts are violating a law passed by the Legislature and signed by him that states it is up to parents to make health decisions.

“Forcing young kids to wear masks all day, these kindergartners, having the government to force them, that’s not defying me, that is defying the state of Florida’s laws,” DeSantis said. “This is not something we are making up. This is what the state law says.”

In Palm Beach County, school board members listened to hours of heated public comments from residents vehemently opposed to a mask mandate before voting to require students and staff to wear masks on school grounds starting Monday.

The mandate will be in place for 90 days, and the policy will allow for limited medical exemptions. The school district previously allowed students to opt out if their parent signed a note.

In the first two weeks of school, more than 700 students and 100 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. About 3,000 have been sent home to quarantine.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools wear masks.

On Wednesday, Biden directed Cardona to “assess all available tools” that can be used against states that fail to protect students amid surging coronavirus cases.

“Some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning,” Biden said in an executive order, adding that some states “have gone so far as to try to block school officials” from adopting safety measures.

In an announcement on its website, the Education Department said policies that ban mask mandates could amount to discrimination if they lead to unsafe conditions that prevent students from attending school. The agency can launch its own investigations into potential violations, and it also responds to civil rights complaints from parents and the public.

“The department has the authority to investigate any state educational agency whose policies or actions may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally,” Cardona said in a statement. He added that states banning mask mandates are “needlessly placing students, families and educators at risk.”

The agency’s Office for Civil Rights can issue a range of sanctions up to a total loss of federal education funding in cases of civil rights violations.

Information from the Associated Press, WUSF’s Steve Newborn, WLRN’s Jessica Bakeman and WLRN news partner the South Florida Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.