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Schools Districts Standing Firm, Telling Corcoran They Are In Compliance

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
LM Otero
The Florida Channel
The districts that have enacted mandates with some form of medical-only exemption are Hillsborough, Leon, Sarasota, Orange, Palm Beach, Indian River, Duval, Miami-Dade, Volusia, Lee and Brevard.

Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Leon, Duval, Sarasota and Miami-Dade reply to the education commissioner that their policies are appropriate.

Updated at 8 a.m. Sept. 3, 2021

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has notified at least 10 Florida school districts that they are enforcing mask mandates that are in violation of a new Department of Health rule.

All have been threatened with financial penalties if they do not comply, and two – Broward and Alachua – already have been told school officials will not be paid as a penalty.

On Wednesday, at least six others – Hillsborough, Duval, Leon, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Miami-Dade – replied that they believe they are in compliance by allowing only medical exemptions to their mandates.

The new rule was triggered by a Gov. Ron DeSantis executive order that effectively blocks such local restrictions. To enforce the order, the health department said districts must allow parents an opt-out. The order and rule were built upon a new law, called the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

The law says any action to usurp parental choice must be “reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”

A circuit judge quoted that language last week in ruling verbally that the executive order was unconstitutional and unenforceable. His written order was filed Thursday and DeSantis appealed the decision to the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, effectively issuing a stay. Administration officials may continue to enforce the state rule until an appellate ruling.

Hillsborough's school district replied that the health department rule allows masks but does not prohibit medical exemptions. It also notes that the state Constitution grants local districts the power to decide such policies.

Leon schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna echoed that response.

“The DOH Rule does not dictate the procedures that school districts must follow for the opt-out or the criteria that are to be applied. Each individual school district has to determine the appropriate procedures and criteria for its district based upon local conditions, which is what we have done,” Hanna wrote in the reply to Corcoran.

In their letter to Corcoran, Duval schools Superintendent Diana L. Greene and school board Chair Elizabeth Andersen called the district's mandate lawful and necessary.

“It was not and is not the intent of the (Duval County Public Schools) to violate any lawful rule of the Board of Education or the Department of Health,” the letter reads.

In its reply, Miami-Dade's school district said the Department of Education's actions were unconstitutional and a violation the Parents' Bill of Rights.

“It is clear that the School Board has a compelling state interest in controlling a deadly communicable disease, like COVID-19,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wrote.

The districts that have enacted mandates with some form of medical-only exemption include Hillsborough, Leon, Sarasota, Orange, Palm Beach, Indian River, Duval, Broward, Alachua, Miami-Dade, Volusia, Lee and Brevard.

The Lake County School Board took no action Thursday after its superintendent recommended a “targeted” mask rule only for schools with a COVID positivity rate above 5%. There will be further discussion at a future meeting.

Also Thursday, Seminole County's school board decided to keep its current mask policy that allows a parent to opt-out.

On Monday, Corcoran announced that school board members in Alachua and Broward counties will not be getting paychecks from the Department of Education this month, saying their mandatory face mask policies violate parental rights. The department will hold onto the funds until each school board complies with the executive order.

"We're going to fight to protect parents' rights to make health care decisions for their children," Corcoran said. "They know what is best for their children."

Charles Gallagher, one of the attorneys representing parents who sued the state in favor of mask requirements, said the state has no legal backing to punish these districts:

"I don't see how anybody can argue that they are unclear of the ruling. And then, you know, act in a way that's contrary to that. So we don't think it's a permissible exercise,” Gallagher said.

Information from NPR, Health News Florida's Daylina Miller and Rick Mayer, WJCT's Claire Heddles and WMFE's Joe Byrnes 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.