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More Districts Under State Investigation Over School Mask Mandates

Students
Marta Lavandier
/
AP
In this Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, file photo, students sit in an algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school in Miami Lakes. A judge has ruled that Florida school districts may impose mask mandates. Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper on Friday agreed with a group of parents who claimed in a lawsuit that Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on the mandates is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran says the Hillsborough, Sarasota, Orange and Duval districts are noncompliant with a health department rule triggered by a governor's ban on local mandates.

The state Department of Education said Tuesday it was investigating the school districts of Hillsborough, Sarasota, Duval and Orange counties over mask mandates that do not allow for a parental exemption.

In a letter to district officials, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote the districts were in violation of a state Department of Health emergency rule triggered by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order intended to block districts from enacting school mask mandates.

On Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled the executive order was unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. However, DeSantis said an appeal is planned once the judge formally signs and submits his order, which is expected sometime this week. In the meantime, the governor's his office has said it will continue to act in defense of parents’ rights.

Corcoran’s letters were sent Monday, and the districts were given until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond. If they remain noncompliant, they could face financial penalties. All the counties have mandates that allow only medical exemptions, although there are differences in other details.

According to the education commissioner’s letter, the state's rules don’t require medical documentation. The commissioner alleges requiring medical certification amounts to noncompliance with the department of education.

On Aug. 20, Corcoran issued similar letters to the Alachua and Broward school districts. Both refused to change policies and were found to be noncompliant. Corcoran announced Monday that his department has withheld an amount equal to monthly school board member salaries in both counties.

Twelve school districts have enacted mask mandates with no parental opt-outs since DeSantis’ order was issued July 30.

Cooper issued an injunction barring Corcoran, the Department of Education and the Board of Education from enforcing the governor’s order. The health department was not a defendant in the lawsuit, and Cooper decided he could not strike down the health department rule that said any local school mask mandates must allow parents to opt out.

DeSantis has said he believes parents should make health decision for their children, and the Parents Bill of Rights is a new state law that served as a foundation for his executive order.

The Biden administration has previously authorized using federal pandemic relief funds to cover school board salaries if Florida follows through on its threats to withhold funding.

Meantime, the Hernando County School Board held an emergency meeting on Tuesday and decided to implement a mandatory mask mandate with a parental opt-out. The district previously only recommended that masks be worn in class.

WJCT's Claire Heddles contributed to this report.