TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WFLA) – The State of Florida has officially returned $878,000 it had withheld from eight local schools districts for implementing mask mandates with no parental opt out earlier in the school year.
$309,000 in school board member salaries had been withheld along with an additional $568,000 after some school boards went to the federal government to backfill the lost funds.
Alachua School District Public Information Officer Jackie Johnson told us the district wasn’t expecting the state to return the money.
“We did receive a check from the federal government, but we had not yet cashed it by the time we learned we were getting the money reimbursed by the state. So we just sent the check back to the feds,” said Johnson.
But the Department of Education said it was always part of the plan.
In an October letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Florida’s Education Commissioner noted the money would be returned once districts came into compliance.
“We are glad that these districts have finally recognized that parents have the right to make personal and private health care and educational decisions for their children. The Department will continue to make sure those rights are protected,” said FDOE Director of Communications Jared Ochs in an emailed statement.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said it’s just happy to see the conflict come to a resolution.
“I mean at the end of the day, what every school board and superintendent wanted to do around this state was make sure that they keep every child safe,” said FEA President Andrew Spar.
The department returning the funds also avoids a possible run in with the federal government, which had planned a hearing to determine whether the state’s actions constituted a violation of federal law.
This will likely be the last of the school masking debate for the foreseeable future, now that state law clearly states masking is in the hands of parents.
The statutory clarification came during the November special session of the Florida Legislature.
“Our hands are tied,” said Johnson.
And with the potential for a winter spike fueled by the Omicron variant, FEA is urging Floridians to do their part to ensure the safety of students.
“But it takes all of us working together to make that happen,” said Spar.