State launches investigation into ACPS mask policy

In interviews on MSNBC and CNN this week, Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon said she would continue to do what she believes is best for staff and students to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

She struck a similar tone in a Washington Post op-ed on Monday, saying she and the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) acted in the best interest of the students and staff by mandating face mask use during the first two weeks of school.

“I value life too much to take chances with the lives of others, even under the threat of retaliation,” she wrote. “As our school board chair has so aptly put it, better a loss of funding than a loss of lives.”

Those threats increased on Monday, as state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote a letter to Simon and SBAC Chair Dr. Leanetta McNealy expressing “grave concern regarding your district’s significant neglect in response to the recently adopted Emergency Rule 64DER21-12 from the Florida Department of Health (FDOH).”

That rule gives parents the right to decide if their child will opt out from wearing a face mask at school without requiring a doctor’s note. Corcoran said requiring medical documentation for an opt-out is “inconsistent with the emergency rule” issued Friday. 

“I am immediately initiating an investigation of noncompliance with rules adopted by the Florida Department of Health and the Florida State Board of Education,” Corcoran wrote. 

The letter demanded a response by 5 p.m. on Tuesday from Simon and McNealy “documenting how your district is complying with FDOH rule 64DER21-12. Any failure to adequately document and substantiate full compliance with this rule will result in sanctions…”

ACPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment about how the district responded to Corcoran’s letter. 

Corcoran—who wrote similar letters to officials in Leon County and Broward County—went on to say that the state may withhold funding equivalent to the salaries of Simon and all four school board members. 

“Depending on the facts presented, I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the Department withhold funds in the amount equal to the salaries for the Superintendent and all the members of the School Board,” the letter states.

On July 30 Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis directed the Florida Department of Education to solidify his preemption on face mask mandates by passing emergency rules that give parents the right to decide if their child will wear a face mask or not.

The health and education agencies issued those rules a week later. The same day, lawyers filed two complaints asking state and federal courts to strike down DeSantis’ order and the emergency rules. 

When asked about the legal action at a press conference, DeSantis expressed confidence that the actions would survive challenge, citing the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights. 

In a statement issued to Mainstreet Daily News, DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said any potential consequences will be targeted. 

“With respect to enforcing any financial consequences for noncompliance of state law regarding these rules and ultimately the rights of parents to make decisions about their children’s education and health care decisions, it would be the goal of the State Board of Education to narrowly tailor any financial consequences to the offense committed,” she said. “Education funding is intended to benefit students first and foremost, not systems. The Governor’s priorities are protecting parents’ rights and ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education that meets their unique needs.”

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