(The Center Square) – The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) will continue to uphold state policy banning school mask mandates and the state Board of Education will continue to dock salaries of school districts that violate the law.
“We will continue forward, lawfully, as we have this entire time,” FDOE spokesman Jared Ochs said Monday in response to queries about a warning issued by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) that it “is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions.”
Ochs dismissed the federal DOE’s threat as “harassing and legally hollow.”
In September, the state Board of Education docked Alachua County School District $147,700 and Broward County Schools $420,000 – equivalent of district officials and board salaries – for violating House Bill 241, the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act; Rule 64DER21-12, which authorizes the Department of Health (DOH) to govern “control of preventable communicable diseases” in schools; and an order from new state surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo.
In response, the Biden administration authorized the use of SAFE grants, intended to reduce COVID-19 transmission in schools, to compensate districts facing financial loss for imposing pandemic policies recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).
On Oct. 12, the Board of Education found six other public school districts – Brevard, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach – in addition to Alachua and Broward to be in noncompliance.
This time, however, the board upped the ante in threatening to withhold funds equal to 1.5 times that of salaries and equal to federal SAFE grants offending districts may receive.
In a two-page letter Monday addressed to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy & Programs Ian Rosenblum called on the state not to follow through with docking Alachua and Broward boards when it releases education allocations this week to local districts.
Rosenblum warned if the state implemented is penalties, it would imperil federal funding and invite litigation because, he said, under Section 8522 of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESSA) of 1965, “a state shall not take into consideration payments under this act … in determining … the amount of state aid” it will allocate.
In other words, under federal law, base state education allocations cannot be changed because a district received a federal grant.
“If FDOE moves forward with its planned reduction of state aid to Alachua and Broward, (DOE) is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions,” he wrote. “We hope that you reconsider your threatened actions against these districts in response to the Project SAFE awards, so that they may continue to take steps to help ensure safe and healthy environments for their students, families, and educators.”
Alachua and Broward school officials say they’ve been buoyed by the federal support and have no plans to change their policies unless and until the CDC and local health agencies say so.
“Broward County Public Schools appreciates the continued support of the United States Department of Education in helping our District provide safe learning environments for our students, teachers and staff,” Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said in a statement.
The Broward County School Board voted Tuesday to keep its mask mandate for elementary and middle students because students under 12 don’t have access to vaccines, but to make them optional for high school students, faculty and staff.
The mask mandate for high school students and employees would be reinstated if the positivity rate for in Broward County reaches 5%. Right now, it’s at 2.2%.