TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Department of Education on Friday issued a stern warning to defiant school districts in Broward and Alachua counties: reverse your universal mask mandates for students or face immediate financial punishments.
The Broward County School District and Alachua County Public Schools are requiring facial coverings for all students without the ability to opt out. The only exceptions are for certain medical conditions.
Those sweeping school mask mandates -- also enacted in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Hillsborough counties -- directly violate a highly controversial executive order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 30 that gives parents the final say over whether their children should wear facial coverings in school.
The emergency order said school district COVID-19 protocols must “allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.”
The Florida Department of Education sent the Broward and Alachua County school districts a warning letter on Friday, saying if they don't comply with DeSantis' directive within 48 hours, the education department will begin the process of withholding the salaries of all school board members who approved the mask mandates.
Every month, and continuing until the school districts comply, each impacted school board member will have 1/12 of their annual salary withheld.
"It is important to remember that this issue is about ensuring local school board members, elected politicians, follow the law," Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a written statement. "We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow. 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 warning letter comes after the Florida Board of Education voted earlier this week to penalize school districts in Broward and Alachua counties for mandating masks with no opt-out provision.
Alachua County Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon released a statement Friday afternoon saying the school district has "no plans to change our current masking requirement."
"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," Simon said.
Simon added that Alachua County Public Schools may pursue legal action "to ensure that we maintain local control over our schools."
In its letter, the Florida Department of Education called the mandates a "blatant violation" of the newly passed Parents' Bill of Rights, and said Corcoran and the State Board of Education "retain the right and duty to impose additional sanctions and take additional enforcement action to bring each school district into compliance with state law and rule."
"All we're doing is implementing Florida law, saying that parents can make the decision," DeSantis said Friday in Fort Walton Beach. "If parents want their school child wearing a mask, they're free to do that. But the parents who think it's harmful are free to make a different decision."
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You can read the letter by clicking here.
It's unclear at this point if school districts in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Hillsborough counties will face any penalties for not abiding by the governor's emergency order.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona issued a statement Friday afternoon, calling the Florida Department of Education's warning letter "deeply troubling" and assuring school districts the Biden Administration stands "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."
Cardona added that any financial penalties imposed by the Florida Department of Education can be addressed immediately using CARES, CRRSA, or American Rescue Plan funds.
"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," Cardona said in his statement.
"We stand ready to assist": US Ed Sec. @teachcardona says after Florida advanced its threat to withhold funding from Broward and Alachua. Districts are in violation of @GovRonDeSantis' mask mandate ban and have 48 hours to comply. pic.twitter.com/A16tLyNUXD— Forrest Saunders (@FBSaunders) August 20, 2021
DeSantis on Friday called it "absolutely outrageous" for the Biden Administration to get involved in the Florida school mask issue.
"Clearly this is something that the parents should do," DeSantis said. "For the federal government to come in and try to overrule parents' rights and force masks on kindergartners, first graders, second graders, that's a massive overreach."
Nikki Fried, Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services who's running against DeSantis in 2022, tweeted Friday afternoon that "defunding our schools to make them less safe is unconscionable and unconstitutional. We are reaching out to the White House and legal counsel right now."