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State poised for further punishment on masking; schools 'have faith' federal aid will continue

'They are going to provide the support that we need,' Alachua County superintendent says
Children wear masks on first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., Aug. 10, 2021
Posted at 4:28 PM, Sep 29, 2021

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Another round of punishment could be coming to Florida schools defying the governor's mask mandate ban. The State Board of Education will discuss 11 districts out of compliance on Oct. 7.

The last time that happened, two schools, Alachua and Broward counties, were hit with thousands of dollars in financial penalties. State officials have withheld funds equal to the monthly salaries of school board members supporting defiance.

A BOE meeting notice, posted online Wednesday morning, said members will address compliance with updated state rules, which recently relaxed student quarantining and still require masking opt-outs for parents.

The board is also likely to discuss a federal grant program reimbursing schools following CDC guidance but hit with state penalties.

Schools in Florida defying ban on mask mandates
Multiple Florida schools defying the governor’s mask mandate ban may soon face another round of punishment.

When asked if the grant money would be a topic at the BOE meeting, Jared Ochs, communications director for the Florida Department of Education, said in an email: "Your questions will be discussed at this meeting. I strongly suggest that you tune in."

Alachua County was the first district to get help through the grant program, Project SAFE. It offered school officials there nearly $150,000 last week. Broward County received more than $400,000 on Tuesday.

Alachua Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon said she was confident the federal government would keep up the aid. That was despite again finding her district in the state's crosshairs.

"I have faith that they are not only going to support us in this situation but any new threats or problems that occur," Simon said. "I believe that they are watching, and they are going to provide the support that we need."

Federal officials backed that up last week. Mary Wall, White House Senior Policy Advisor on Education, told us the Biden administration was not "playing politics."

"The administration will continue to support educators and leaders who are doing right by kids," she said. "But, it's extremely important that we don't play games here."

White House Senior Policy Advisor for Education Mary Wall
Mary Wall speaks about the White House's support for Florida school districts imposing mask mandates.

DeSantis and state education officials have continued to say masking policies should be parents' decisions, not districts. In statements, the administration has vowed to keep up pressure on schools in defiance.

"At the end of the day, the government was instituted for certain reasons, to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," DeSantis said during a recent press conference. "Here, with what we're doing with this policy -- we're really supporting the ability of kids to be educated."

Officials have scheduled the BOE meeting for 1 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 7. It will be conducted virtually via conference call. The meeting is open to the public by calling 1(800) 368-1029 and using Passcode: 380771.