TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As anticipated, the Florida Board of Education on Thursday ruled that eight public school districts — including Palm Beach County — violated state policy by mandating face masks for students without the ability for them to opt out.
The School District of Palm Beach County is currently requiring all K-12 students to wear facial coverings inside school buildings and on school district transportation. Masks don't need to be worn outdoors or when students are eating or drinking. The only other exceptions are for children with certain medical conditions.
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State board members unanimously ruled Thursday that Palm Beach County's mandate — which went into effect on Aug. 23 — directly violates a Florida Department of Health emergency rule which requires school districts to give parents and guardians the ability to opt their child out of wearing a face covering in school.
The board gave the school district 48 hours to comply with the directive or face financial consequences.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran recommended that state board members consider withholding funds from the School District of Palm Beach County "in an amount equal to 1/12 of all school board members' salaries," as well as withhold funds equal to any money given to the district through the Biden Administration's Project SAFE grant program.
"Districts are required to follow these policies. They can't pick and choose which parts of the law they want to follow," Corcoran said during Thursday's teleconference meeting.
Superintendent Mike Burke said those financial penalties equate to at least $27,000 a month in state funding that could be withheld from the school district. As of Thursday, the district has not received any Project SAFE grant funding.
Burke spoke at Thursday's meeting and defended the school district's COVID-19 policies, saying they are "reasonable and necessary" to protect students from the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant, which quickly impacted thousands of children at the start of the 2021/22 academic year.
"We had 4,000 to 5,000 students directed to stay home each day due to either positive cases or potential exposures," Burke said. "By the second week of school, the positivity rate in Palm Beach County had grown to 17.9%."
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Burke told WPTV on Tuesday the district is prepared to take a financial hit.
"We can withstand that for a while and then hopefully, ultimately, we will prevail in this matter," Burke said. "We want to be able to explain to the state board why we did what we felt was right in the interest of safety and how we made those decisions."
Burke and Palm Beach County School Board members have repeatedly argued their sweeping mask mandate falls within their authority under the Florida Constitution to provide a safe learning environment for students. However, Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials strongly believe parents and guardians should have the final say over health, well-being, and educational decisions for their children.
"The delta variant proved to be a game-changer, proving to be more transmissible and a greater threat to our children than last year's alpha variant," Burke told state board members on Thursday. "After just four weeks of school, our number of COVID cases had exceeded the total number of cases experienced all of last school year."
The seven-member Florida Board of Education has already imposed financial sanctions against school districts in Broward and Alachua counties for their mask mandates. However, federal funding from the Project SAFE program has replenished that money.
"I strongly believe that this federal grant program improperly attempts to interfere with the state board's authority to manage our state's educational system," Corcoran said. "Education is a state responsibility, not a federal one."
The penalties considered Thursday would include cutting funding to offset aid from the federal government.
"A face covering policy was necessary in response to the dramatically and rapidly worsening state of the spread of COVID as a result of the delta variant," Burke said. "Facial coverings are not a permanent solution, and our district is cautiously optimistic by the recent decline in COVID cases in our community and in our schools."
Following Thursday's decision, a spokesperson for the School District of Palm Beach County released the following statement to WPTV:
"The School Board’s policy is consistent with the law and our obligations under the Florida constitution. The Board has a constitutional duty to provide safe schools and a statutory duty to protect the welfare of our students. Given the significant threat that COVID poses to children, and the health data we have assembled, we believe that the District has acted in the best interests of our students and that our policy is necessary to fulfill our duty to keep our students safe.
Our emergency policy is data-driven and requires facial coverings to protect our students against the spread of COVID during times of elevated community spread, as evidenced by available data.
The School Board has not disregarded or ignored the DOH rule. It has considered it carefully in light of its legal and constitutional obligations to protect students. The Board has determined that it cannot fulfill those legal and constitutional duties by allowing an undetermined number of students to attend school without facial coverings."
The Florida Board of Education was scheduled to consider financial punishments against the School District of Indian River County for its masking policies. However, at the start of Thursday's meeting, Board Chair Tom Grady said the district is in compliance with the state's emergency rule.
Indian River County schools are currently operating under a tiered system in which face masks are optional for students in schools that have lower COVID-19 positivity rates.
In addition to Palm Beach County, the Florida Board of Education on Thursday ruled that school districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, and Orange counties have also violated the state's emergency policy regarding facial coverings.