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Florida Ed Board Votes To Investigate, Punish Alachua And Broward Over School Masks Policies

Leon County students can go to school mask-free, although Supt. Rocky Hanna says schools may pivot in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Andy Dean Photography/Andy Dean
Leon County students can go to school mask-free, although Supt. Rocky Hanna says schools may pivot in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Broward and Alachua County Schools are either heroes or villains for their mandatory school  mask policies—depending on what side someone is on. The State Board of Education is erring on the side of villain— and has decided to punish those districts for requiring students to wear masks. The board says the policies violate rules issued by the Florida Department of Health. Lynn Hatter reports neither district is backing down despite threats up to removal from office.

The Florida Board of Education has decided both school districts are violating Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning mandatory mask policies, and the corresponding rules issued by the Florida Department of Health. But Broward’s interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright argues the language of the rule leaves districts latitude to set their own policies.

“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 told the board, defending the school district's mandatory school mask requirements.

Both Broward and Alachua are only allowing mask opt-outs if parents have a medical excuse signed by a physician or therapist. Alachua School Superintendent Carlee Simon says her district is also following the rules—noting the policy allows parents to use the HOPE scholarship for bullied students if they disagree with the mask rules. Simon says her district’s policy is 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 symptoms, have been tested, and have been dropped off to school while parents are waiting for test results," Simon said.

Yet medical opt-outs are not acceptable, says state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who has recommended both districts be punished. Board Chairman Tom Grady says that punishment—to be decided later—could include some severe penalties.

“That may include withholding funds from the district---it may involve withholding salaries, removing officers, reviewing district conduct, it may involve public records requests..." he said.

Along with a potential report to the legislature that includes recommendations on how to strengthen the board’s enforcement power.

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.

Follow @HatterLynn

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. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.