Florida Board of Education votes to punish Alachua, Broward counties for mask mandates

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Florida Board of Education voted unanimously to punish Broward and Alachua counties for mandating masks in schools.

The vote by the Board is the first time punishments have officially been decided for counties that defy the current state policies and health recommendations, but the actual sanctions or actions have not yet been decided.

During the meeting, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran hit hard in his review of Alachua and Broward counties’ school district mask mandates, focusing on constitutionality, safety, policy and child development.

Corcoran started off, admitting to worry over issues of how the mask policies will affect children’s health, education and future development.

“What we all are concerned about, what we should be concerned about, is the health and education of our children,” Corcoran said. Referencing the authority and duties of the state’s surgeon general, Corcoran said it was up to the Surgeon General to decide emergency rules, but that Alachua and Broward counties were not in compliance with the current rules. “We have districts picking and choosing what laws they want to follow.”

Florida’s “State board has authority to initiate” actions to bring them back into compliance, according to state law.

Corcoran attacked the Biden administration over their moves to limit how the American Rescue Plan’s educational funds are used, including the state’s use of them for the much-lauded teacher bonuses pushed by the DeSantis administration and state legislature.

He referenced the U.S. Department of Education saying they’ll use ESSER funds for Florida to back-fill the “part-time school board members and superintendent” for their salaries, should the state withhold paychecks as a consequence of mask mandates in school districts.

Corcoran said the superintendents and board members were part-time and not even “on the front lines” then called the Biden administration “asleep at the wheel” for their stance on Florida’s ongoing mask debate.

Essentially, Corcoran believes Alachua and Broward counties’ school districts must allow a different form of parental opt-out, in order to avoid a continued violation of the current state rules and policies for health and education as it concerns the probable cause found for their alleged violation, and should follow the rules as set by the state’s Surgeon General.

Simon argued in defense of the policy, basing the impact of the current COVID-positivity rate in the community and the more than 600 students reportedly in quarantine due to the virus as reasons for the mask requirement. She also disagreed with Corcoran’s interpretation of the Parents’ Bill of Rights law as it applies to masking.

What followed was a tense back-and-forth questioning between Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon and Board of Education Chair Tom Grady.

The discussion went from narrow to broad regarding state and county policies, student handbooks, the medical science of masking during a pandemic, and the legality and goals of the current mask policy of the Alachua County School District.

“Our goal is to keep our schools open” and the mask mandate is designed to do so, Simon said.

The conclusion of the questioning session between Simon and Grady ended with both still firmly entrenched in their positions, leading to Grady to cite the powers of the State Board of Ed. as set by the Florida Constitution.

“The constitution grants very broad powers” to the State Board of Education, Ed. Board Chair Tom Grady said. “The authority it grants is significant…If you look at 1001.02, this board has the duties as to perform other duties as to the enforcement of laws of the state system of education.”

Chair Grady introduced a motion to amend the vote, and asked that the board vote to not only institute a more thorough review of the conduct of Alachua’s superintendent and board, but to explore what other ways they may enforce compliance, including but not limited to withholding funds for salaries and potentially removing officers for not complying with the state directive.

Following a round of public questioning, the amendment introduced by Grady was put to a vote.

Separately, Grady said if funds are removed he would support it, though not in a way that would bring children to harm.

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