In the face of increasing sanctions, eight Florida school district superintendents told the State Board of Education (SBOE) they will continue to act in the best interest of students, staff and community safety by continuing to enforce face mask use to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
If they do not reverse course within 48 hours, they will pay a higher price for doing so.
At Thursday's SBOE meeting Florida Department of Education (FDOE) Commissioner Richard Corcoran presented his case against eight school districts that he said are in noncompliance with the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) emergency rule for controlling COVID-19 in schools. Corcoran recommended that the board levy sanctions that would offset amounts the federal government has sent districts through Project SAFE grants.
Despite arguments by the superintendents, including ACPS Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon, who stated the local school boards have a right and duty to protect the safety of their students in narrowly tailored mitigation strategies if there is a compelling interest—as outlined by the Parent's Bill of Rights—the SBOE voted unanimously to order compliance within 48 hours.
"Despite the state Board’s action, ACPS will maintain its current masking protocols," Simon said in a statement after the ruling. "We believe those protocols comply with state law and our constitutional obligation to provide students with a safe learning environment."
Simon said the U.S. Education Department told Corcoran Thursday afternoon that the effort to withdraw funds equal to Project SAFE grants may be illegal, although she did not specify how.
"We appreciate the continued support of the USED and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona for our efforts to protect the health and safety of our students and staff," Simon said.
Thursday's meeting was originally scheduled to address 11 school districts, but the FDOE declared Hillsborough, Indian River and Sarasota counties in compliance and withdrew them from the agenda. That left Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties to participate in presenting compliance updates.
Anastasios Kamoutsas, general counsel for the FDOE, advised board members that if they determined that districts were unwilling to allow the parent opt-out and comply with the DOH rule, they could vote to order actions and sanctions, such as withholding state funds.
Corcoran then stated the topic was "highly charged" and said that the FDOE's focus is on the importance of in-person education and stated that "none of the districts [have been allowing] parents to opt out at their discretion," which violated the Parents' Bill of Rights.
Tom Grady, chair of the SBOE, then outlined what the SBOE wanted to hear from each superintendent—whom Corcoran deemed as leading a district in non-compliance.
"Each district shall document compliance," Grady said. "If they are not documenting compliance, we may order compliance within a certain amount of time."
If a district fails, whether unwilling or unable, the board may put sanctions on districts, he told the SBOE.
Grady said the hearing was not about "whether masks work, if you like mandates, not about what science means, not about rescinding the old (DOH) rule. It's about the kids."
Grady then opened up the discussion to public comment, which he said the SBOE was not required to do. He limited the comments to one minute and required them to address only whether districts were in compliance.
More than 30 parents called in from throughout the state mostly notifying the SBOE that their districts were not only not complying with the DOH rule, but claiming that parents were being escorted out of Brevard County school board meetings and trespassed from Palm Beach meetings.
Several parents demanded that school board members and superintendents implementing policy that defies the DOH rule be reprimanded and removed from their positions.
The comments included several regarding Alachua County policies.
One caller said that Alachua County is in compliance with law through the Hope Scholarship which allows students to attend a school without mask protocols. The caller said the schools are in compliance because they are, "keeping all students safe legally."
In contrast, another caller stated ACPS is out of compliance because officials are not allowing for parent opt-out rights. The caller stated that the SBAC has parents escorted out of meetings and asked that the SBOE take "swift action against school boards not allowing students to be mask free."
Corcoran noted that only two school districts in the U.S. have received Project SAFE grant funds—Alachua was awarded $147,719 and Broward schools received $420,957.
"Project SAFE requires implementing CDC standards," Corcoran said, explaining that by accepting the funds, the districts must follow CDC guidance in the correct use of face masks or risk losing the money.
He said the federal government is interfering with the way SBOE is able to manage schools and that is an "egregious violation of the Tenth Amendment" regarding the relationship between federal and state governments.
"It encourages schools to violate the law," he said. "If the federal government can backfill or buy off, it nullifies and abolishes the SBOE and FDOE."
The FDOE and SBOE stated that the Florida Department of Health will decide health protocols for the state, not the CDC. They noted that there are differences in the agencies' policies for mitigating COVID-19 but the DOH rule trumps the CDC's.