Florida education commissioner finds ‘probable cause’ districts violated DeSantis’ mask mandate ban

Education

Gov. Ron DeSantis listens as Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a press conference in October 2019. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

UPDATE: The Florida Board of Education voted unanimously to punish Broward and Alachua counties for mandating masks in schools.

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The fight between local school districts and Florida’s state government over mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions is heating up as Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran pledges enforcement actions after Broward and Alachua counties enacted mask mandates in their schools.

In two memorandums released Tuesday, Corcoran says that he found probable cause that both school districts had acted contrary to state law, violating the rules set by the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights, by requiring students to wear masks.

The memorandums state the mask rules violate a recent executive action by Gov. Ron DeSantis too. The action threatened to put a pause on pay for superintendents and local Board of Education members who defy the order. The ability to withhold salaries for defiant school districts will be voted on by the State Board of Education Tuesday.

Both county school districts had specific, though narrow, options for opting out of wearing a mask.

The Broward County School District required “a medical certification or an IEP team recommendation” to avoid their mask mandate, as noted by Corcoran in the memorandum.

Corcoran’s memorandum on Alachua County said the school district required parents to “provide documentation from a medical doctor, osteopathic physician, or a licensed nurse practitioner in order to opt-out of the district’s mask mandate.”

“Every school board member and every school superintendent have a duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran wrote as the conclusion in both memorandums. “While the district may not agree with the safety protocols set forth by the Surgeon General in the emergency rule, the Surgeon General is the person who, under the law, sets protocols to control COVID-19 in schools.”

Now Corcoran has, through his memorandum, reported the probable cause to the State Board of Education, a part of the enforcement process set by Florida statutes to begin weighing any potential sanctions on Broward and Alachua counties’ school districts.

The authority, as cited by Corcoran in the memorandums, is provided for through the hierarchy created by the Florida Constitution, where “a school board has local control, but the State Board supervises the system as a whole.”

The statute notes that at times, this authority may “infringe on a school board’s local powers,” but is encouraged by the supervisory power written into state law for the State Board. Still, both memorandums do not specify what the actual enforcement actions or penalties will be.

Meanwhile, as the 2021-2022 school year starts, case numbers continue to rise across Florida. Hillsborough County Public Schools reported almost 5,600 students and 316 employees had been put in isolation or quarantine as a result of contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Previously, Hillsborough had cited financial stability issues as a reason to not push back on DeSantis’s mask mandate ban, but following the thousands of COVID-19 cases reported yesterday, the district will hold an emergency meeting on Aug. 18 to discuss the surge of cases and how to proceed.

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