Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
MIAMI — Florida officials are threatening to withhold funds equal to the salaries of school board members if school districts in two counties don’t immediately do away with strict mask mandates as the state continues to battle through high hospitalization rates.
School boards in Broward and Alachua counties received a warning Friday from the State Board of Education giving them 48 hours to walk back their decisions to require masks for all students, only exempting those with a doctor’s note. Broward County has the second-largest school district in the state.
Corcoran said the two districts are violating the Parents’ Bill of Rights and a late July executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that prompted rules limiting how far districts can go with mask requirements.
The Republican governor has pushed for school districts not to mandate masks for all students, ordering the state’s health and education departments to devise rules so that parents can choose. Corcoran was recommended to the post by DeSantis and appointed by the State Board of Education in 2019.
Florida on Friday surpassed 3 million total COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a weekly report from the state’s health department. It also reported 1,486 new deaths in a week, significantly raising the seven-day average of reported deaths per day from 153 to 212 over the past week.
The state continued to have the highest hospitalization rates in the country, with 16,849 patients with COVID-19 — 3,500 of them in intensive care, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Later Friday, Sarasota County became the sixth school district in the state to adopt a stricter mask policy. Two other school districts — Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties — had originally started the school year allowing parents to easily opt out of wearing masks, but tightened their measures this week. And the school board of the state’s largest district in Miami-Dade County adopted the same policy of only allowing mask exemptions with a doctor’s note.
Because of the size of the school districts’ budgets, the cuts are more symbolic than harmful. According to the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, school board members in Alachua County make $40,000 per year and in Broward County, $46,000. Alachua has about 30,000 students and a $258 million general fund budget. Broward County has about 270,000 students and a $2.7 billion general fund budget.
Corcoran’s orders require that school districts provide information regarding the compensation of school board members who voted to impose strict mandates if they don’t immediately reverse their decisions. It also outlines it will begin to withhold from state funds the amount equal to their monthly salary, prohibiting districts from cutting funds in other areas such as teachers pay or student services.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke Friday with the superintendents of the two school districts and told them they should use federal pandemic relief funds to make up for any financial sanctions. President Joe Biden later expressed his support on Twitter.
“We will do everything we can to support local school districts in safely reopening schools. American Rescue Plan funds can be used to backfill the salaries of the brave Florida school board members, superintendents, and other educators keeping our children safe,” Biden said on Twitter.
Earlier in the day, DeSantis attacked the Biden administration’s response, calling it “absolutely outrageous” and governmental “overreach.”
“To have the federal government come in and overrule the rights of the parents as if they know better?” DeSantis said at a news conference Friday. “They want to kneecap the parents and empower teachers unions.”
It’s unclear what will happen with the state funds if a judge decides to block DeSantis’ order regarding masks. On Thursday, a state judge cleared the way for a three-day trial next week on a lawsuit from parents challenging DeSantis.
In asking that the lawsuit be dismissed, attorneys for the governor contended that the governor’s order simply upholds a law that gives parents the right to make health care decisions. The law makes no specific mention of masks.