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Districts prepare to face State Board of Education fines over masks mandates

Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna
WFSU
Leon County schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna says he’s going to try to appeal to the board’s “better sense."

More than a dozen districts are slated to go before the board, which has already fined two — Alachua and Broward — over mask policies that do not allow parents the choice to opt out.

A group of Florida school districts are facing potential fines as the State Board of Education meets Thursday to take up findings that they are violating state laws on mandatory masking.

More than a dozen districts elected to require medical excuses to opt-out and the fight has waged across school board meetings and courtrooms, even drawing in President Joe Biden’s administration.

Now, the districts are slated to go before the board, which has already fined two districts — Alachua and Broward — over mask policies that do not allow parents the choice to opt out.

Leon County schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna says he’s going to try to appeal to the board’s “better sense."

“They say at the beginning of every meeting that the board is unpaid and not political. And I am going to just appeal to their better sense of judgment, not to let politics cloud … what they think is right," Hanna says.

Hanna maintains his district is doing the right thing by requiring students to wear face coverings and requiring medical excuses to opt out.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Board of Education and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran repeatedly have pointed to the new Parents’ Bill of Rights law, which says parents have ultimate say over the health care decisions of their children.

DeSantis has consistently come down on the side of voluntary masking.

“You’re free to recommend. You can encourage whatever you want. But I don’t think you’re can override the rights and decisions of the parents," DeSantis said.

The fight has grown increasingly contentious amid lawsuits and threats of funding cuts. The federal government has stepped in, and is backfilling money noncompliant districts may lose due to fines. Alachua has already received $147,000 and Broward $420,000 to make up for state fines incurred.

In a recent letter to districts, Corcoran says in addition to holding back a percentage of state funds equal to a 12th of board member salaries, the state will also hold back money "equal to any federal grants districts with mandatory policies could get.

In response, Hanna says what he’s said from the beginning.

“My job will never be able to replace a child’s life or one of our employees’ lives,” he says. “And I’ve went to a child’s funeral and two employees’ funerals. I mean, you just can’t … put a price tag on that. And if it costs me my salary or my job, that’s just the price I’ll pay.”

Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, says if the board approves the additional penalty, they’re helping push DeSantis’ and Corcoran’s political agenda, not protecting kids.

“When you do something that risks people’s health and lives. It’s just ridiculous,” Doromal said. “I think what’s going to happen is if they say that they are going to withhold money then we’re going to see the federal government keep its word and supplement the funds that are withheld.”

Two districts – Hillsborough and Sarasota – have already changed their rules since the Board of Education scheduled Thursday’s meeting. Hillsborough voted to allow parental opt-outs while Sarasota decided to make repeal its rule and make masks optionas.

But others have stood firm on their COVID safety policies that defy the governor’s executive order on masks and the rules to enforce it enacted by the state’s Department of Health and Department of Education.

Like Leon, Duval County schools allow students to opt out only for medical reasons, but the school board plans to meet next week to rethink its threshold for lifting the requirement.

Duval plans to relax its mask mandate when the county has fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Superintendent Diana Greene says recent trends suggest the district won’t hit that mark until the first week of November.

The school board also has authorized legal action against the state, but no case has been filed yet.

Palm Beach County on Wednesday said it would lift its mandate for students when the number of COVID cases drops by two-thirds and vaccines are available for ages 5 and older, and a district official said that could be weeks or months away.

“When all those indictors are in place is when we would move to masks being opt-out,” Keith Oswald, the district’s chief of equity and wellness, told the board.

Doromal, the teachers’ union president in Orange County, says the virus’ positivity rate at schools in her district is still high. And with no virtual option for schools, masks are the only safe option in crowded classrooms.

“Look at the positivity rate. It’s still way over 5 percent and we know the CDC and medical experts are recommending that masks be mandated universally until the positivity rate goes under 5 percent,” she said.

Doromal said many teachers and students have reported that they have contracted COVID in schools this year. She said masks will guarantee that schools can remain open especially during the winter holidays when people visit with family and friends.

WFSU’s Lynn Hatter, WJCT’s Claire Heddles, WMFE’s Danielle Prieur and Health News Florida’s Rick Mayer contributed to this report.