TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has turned his eye to the school boards in Hillsborough County and Sarasota County for alleged noncompliance with the Florida Department of Health’s emergency rule over school mask mandates.
On Aug. 18, the Hillsborough County School Board voted on a 30-day mask mandate with a limited medical opt-out in response to the rising COVID-19 cases among students and staff. Sarasota County Schools also approved a 90-day mask mandate went into effect without any parental opt-out.
However, at the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order in July, the FDOH enacted a rule requiring school districts to allow parents to opt-out their children themselves.
Corcoran said the Florida Department of Education is now investigating both school districts for allegedly violating the rule.
“Based on this authority, I am immediately initiating an investigation of non-compliance with the rule adopted by the Florida Department of Health on August 6, 2021,” he wrote in letters sent to officials in both districts last Friday. “In commencing this investigation, I am demanding that you provide a written response by 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 1, 2021, documenting how your district is complying with Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule 64DER21-12.”
Despite a judge’s ruling on Friday against immediate punishment for mask policies, Corcoran moved forward in beginning the process to level sanctions against Hillsborough and Sarasota counties’ school districts. The commissioner’s letter said if the school districts cannot prove compliance, he will recommend that the State Board of Education withhold funding from each district equal to the salaries of all of their respective school board members.
“Parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education and care of their minor children,” Corcoran wrote. “The Department of Education will protect that right.”
The Florida Department of Education already withheld funding from school districts in Alachua and Broward counties, according to Corcoran’s announcement Monday.
This has caused pushback from Democratic leaders in the state, who are now accusing Corcoran of abusing his authority from blocking local school districts from enacting mask protocols.
“He is abusing the power he wields to enforce a dangerous agenda designed to please a radical segment of the Governor’s political base, even if that means bulldozing over the rights of the communities who elected these officials and putting lives at risk across the state,” said Manny Diaz, Florida Democratic Party chairman in a statement. “All of this occurs while the state registers one of the highest rates of COVID hospitalizations in the country and bodies are stacking up at morgues operating beyond capacity.”
The Florida Department of Education on Tuesday night issued a statement following regarding the ongoing investigations,
“To date, a signed written order has not been issued. At this point, we will continue to act with urgency to protect the rights of parents and students. We will not let up, and we will not stop holding elected school board members who refuse to follow the law accountable,” Director of Communications and External Affairs Jared Ochs said.