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.
“We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran in an emailed statement. “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.”
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.
DeSantis maintains masks can be detrimental for children's development and that younger children simply don't wear masks properly. But board members in the counties of Broward, home to Fort Lauderdale, and Alachua, home to Gainesville, decided not to allow parents to easily opt out of the mandate as surging cases fueled by the delta variant began straining hospitals.
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.
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.”
Broward school board President Rosalind Osgood stood by the board’s decision, saying the governor was "overreaching his authority." In a statement, she said the district has asked its lawyers to explore legal challenges, promising a respone to Friday’s order within 48 hours as requested.
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.