TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Forty-eight hours or else.
The state gave a final warning Friday to Broward and Alachua schools demanding they come into compliance on mask mandates or face a funding cut.
The districts were the first two, of what's become five, school systems now violating Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order. Both refuse to offer the required non-medical opt outs for parents.
Florida's Ed Department giving Broward and Alachua 48 hours to comply with the governor's mask mandate ban or face a financial penalty: state funds, on a monthly basis, in an amount equal to 1/12 of the total annual compensation of school board members opposing gov's order. pic.twitter.com/k94IVU7YaK— Forrest Saunders (@FBSaunders) August 20, 2021
If the schools don't obey in two days, the state said in two separate orders it will withhold funds equal to a month's worth of pay for each school board member voting for noncompliance. It will happen every month until districts fall back in line.
Districts are also forbidden from pulling dollars elsewhere in their budget to backfill losses, an attempt by the state to minimize impacts to the education of students. The state warned further penalties were a possibility as well.
"We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow," said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, in a statement. "These are the initial consequences to their intentional refusal to follow state law and state rule to purposefully and willingly violate the rights of parents. This is simply unacceptable behavior."
The White House has said it will back schools in their defiance. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said Friday federal officials "stand ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff."
"We've also made clear to district leaders that any financial penalties imposed by the state can be addressed immediately using CARES, CRRSA, or American Rescue Plan funds," he said in a statement. "Today, I also spoke directly to the Superintendents of Broward and Alachua County schools to reassure them that the President and his Administration stand with them and with all educators who put student and staff health and education first."
DeSantis has blasted the Biden administration for involving itself in what he believes is a state matter. The Republican has defended his order as protecting parental rights over school district regulations.
"I think it's absolutely outrageous," DeSantis said during a Friday press conference. "First of all, in Florida, the Legislature passed the Parents' Bill of Rights -- which says that parents have the ultimate authority over these key issues involving health, safety, wellness, education and the upbringing of their kids. All we are doing is implementing Florida law."
Both Alachua and Broward issued statements of support for their masking policies, despite the advancing threat of penalty.
"Based on the dramatic spike in cases and quarantines in our schools and community, we believe universal masking is absolutely critical to keeping schools open, protecting the health of our students and staff and limiting the current strain on our local healthcare system," said Dr. Carlee Simon, Superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools. "If necessary, we will pursue legal action to ensure that we maintain local control over our schools and are able to meet our obligation to provide a safe learning environment for all students."
Dr. Rosalind Osgood, the School Board Chair for Broward, said she felt the masking exceptions the board put in place for IEP (Individualized Education Program) students and those with medical concerns were enough to bring the district into compliance. Also, that "legal avenues" were being explored to challenge the governor's order.
"Our School Board feels the governor is overreaching his authority," she said. "The Constitution of the State of Florida gives local school boards the authority to make policies that govern local school districts. We will provide our response to today’s Order within 48 hours as requested."
The other three districts in violation, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, have yet to receive similar notice of pending punishment. It's likely only a matter of time.
The Centers for Disease Control continue to recommend masking for those vaccinated and unvaccinated while inside schools. Officials believe doing so will slow the spread of the highly infectious delta variant surging in the state and across the country.