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Florida school districts could be rewarded for having less restrictive face mask policies

Proposed state budget includes $200 million in 'recognition' money for 55 school districts
Martin County students wear facial coverings in class during the 2021-22 academic year.jpg
Posted at 12:09 PM, Mar 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 17:46:26-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Dozens of Florida school districts — including those on the Treasure Coast — could be financially rewarded for enacting less restrictive face mask policies last year.

The Florida House and Senate on Thursday released their final proposed $112 billion budget, which includes $24.3 billion for K-12 public education in the state.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education

$200 million has been put into a School Recognition Fund, which would reward schools in 55 districts that followed a Florida Department of Health emergency rule in 2021 by allowing parents and guardians to opt their children out of wearing facial coverings in school.

Those districts include Martin, St. Lucie, and Okeechobee counties.

However, 12 school districts that enacted sweeping mask mandates with no parental opt-out — including Palm Beach and Indian River counties — would not be eligible for the reward money.

Palm Beach County students wear face masks in school during the 2021_22 academic year.jpg
Palm Beach County students wear face masks in school during the 2021/22 academic year.

"The 55 counties that followed the law are going to be eligible to have these school recognition dollars," said Rep. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, one of the Florida Legislature's budget negotiators. "This is just an opportunity for us to reward those schools and school districts that followed the law."

Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, speak to reporters in Tallahassee on March 10, 2022.jpg
Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, speak to reporters in Tallahassee on March 10, 2022.

Only high-performing schools, however, would be eligible for a share of that $200 million pot.

"You're only eligible for it if your grades are good. If your school grades are an A or a B, then that's when you get the dollars," Trumbull said. "It's rewarding you for performing well."

The School Recognition Fund replaces a controversial budget item known as the Putting Parents First Adjustment, which would've stripped $200 million in funding from the 12 school districts that didn't follow the Florida Department of Health's mask rules.

Under the adjustment, the School District of Palm Beach County would've seen a $28 million funding cut, while the School District of Indian River County would've had $1.3 million slashed from its budget allotment.

Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, released the following statement about the budget proposal:

"The Florida Education Association thanks the Senate for standing firm in its refusal to penalize students in the 12 school districts that listened to their communities and held fast to mask requirements in local schools."

Trumbull said the new funding plan doesn't necessarily hurt any school districts because the recognition program wasn't available last year.

"What this fund is doing is saying, hey, you've followed the law and your school is doing well. You have the ability to draw down some of these resources," Trumbull said. "Should you have broken the law, you don't get those resources."

Democrats have taken issue with the School Recognition Fund.

"The two school districts that I represent in Palm Beach County and Broward County who were doing the right thing by their population and keeping schools open and keeping students safe are now being penalized," said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

The School District of Palm Beach County eventually made facial coverings optional for students on Nov. 19, 2021 to comply with a new state law.

Indian River County had, at one point last school year, mandated facial coverings for all K-8 students without the ability for them to opt-out.

In addition to Palm Beach and Indian River counties, K-12 public schools in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Sarasota, and Volusia counties would not be eligible for the $200 million bonus money.

The Florida Legislature's proposed $24.3 billion public education budget includes $800 million for school districts to increase the minimum salaries of teachers to at least $47,500, as well as $8,142 in funding per student, which is an increase over last year.

The Florida House and Senate are scheduled to vote on the record $112 billion budget on Monday.