Attorney warns SBAC to comply on masks

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) has until 5 p.m. Tuesday to comply with face mask and quarantine regulations set by the Department of Health (DOH) or a lawsuit will move forward.

In September, the SBAC received a letter demanding the school district comply with the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) rule titled "Protocols for Controlling COVID-19 in School Settings," from Gainesville Attorney Jeff Childers on behalf of a group of parents in Alachua and Duval counties. Days later, Childers filed a petition with the First District Court of Appeal. 

On Saturday, Childers sent another demand letter saying the court was poised to rule against the district once it answered the basic question of whether the parents lived in the district. He called on the SBAC to "completely rescind the illegal policy" by 5 p.m. Tuesday or his clients would seek "all available relief." 

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In a letter sent to SBAC attorney David DeLaney Tuesday morning, Childers declined a district request to wait until after tonight's regular meeting, which has the mask issue on the agenda. He said the SBAC must come into compliance by 5 p.m. "in order for the plaintiffs to agree to file a suggestion of mootness and stand down" in the case against the district.  

"In the event this occurs, notify me immediately so that I may do whatever is possible to prevent further enforcement against the district," Childers wrote.

Childers rejected the idea of a delay, saying the school board has had time to act. 

"Nothing prevented them from calling an emergency session prior to the deadline and correcting course," Childers wrote. "You received the demand letter prior to the period required to give notice of a special meeting. Also, yesterday morning the Superintendent could have just announced publicly that the unlawful policies would not be enforced. You had any number of options."

The FDOH rule—which new Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo issued in September—allows parents to opt out their children from wearing a face mask and also to send exposed children to school if they are asymptomatic.

The SBAC approved its latest COVID-19 mitigation policy in September. It includes a parental opt-out for high schoolers, but it requires a medical opt-out for face masks for elementary and middle school students. It also requires unvaccinated students and staff in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 to stay at home for four calendar days after the date of their last known exposure to a person with COVID-19, then "get tested on Day 5. If negative and symptom-free, return to school on Day 5. Without a test, stay home for 7 calendar days and, if symptom-free, return to school on Day 8."

In response to the new FDOH rule, Simon said it protects the rights of parents who do not want their children to wear masks, but it does not provide a choice for parents who want to send their children to a school where all students wear masks.

"I find it ironic that the new state rule begins with the phrase 'Because of an increase in COVID-19 infections, largely due to the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant…' Simon said. "In fact, this rule is likely to promote the spread of COVID-19 by preventing schools from implementing the common-sense masking and quarantine policies recommended by the vast majority of health care professionals, including those here in Alachua County. The State is, in fact, doubling down on policies that may ultimately put students, staff and the entire community at greater risk."

Since then, the pandemic surge has receded. A state appeals court and a federal court have also ruled in favor of the state's ban on school mask mandates, leaving the district with dwindling options. 

"You have been warned. Repeatedly," Childers wrote. "Students in the district don’t even get as many warnings as you’ve received. Govern yourself accordingly."

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