Florida Department of Education gives Alachua, Broward 48 hours to drop schools mask mandates

If districts don’t comply, state will begin to cut funding

If districts don’t comply, state will begin to cut funding

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Education on Friday formally demanded that the Alachua and Broward County school districts “comply with state statute and rule” by dropping their mask requirements.

The order issued gives the two districts to document compliances within 48 hours or the state would initially withhold an amount equal to one month’s pay of the school board members, with the possibility of “additional enforcement action” in the future.

But the Alachua superintendent told News4Jax she is not budging.

“We do believe we are in compliance of the laws and we are going to move forward with the mandates we have,” said Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon, Alachua County Schools. “Our goal is to make sure we have a safe environment for our students and our staff and then the community off of that, and so we look at this as a child’s life or one of our staff workers’ lives.”

The education department said it had provided each district several opportunities to “correct their behavior in an attempt to find an amicable resolution to no avail.”

“School board members of districts have willingly and knowingly violated the rights of parents by denying them the option to make health care decisions for their children — a blatant violation of the Parents’ Bill of Rights,” the Department of Education said in a news release.

This order comes four days after the state Board of Education unanimously voted to “use its enforcement powers” against the two districts after they defied a statewide order that students could opt out of wearing a face mask without a doctor’s note. Unlike Duval County, which only requires a parent or guardian’s note, both Alachua and Broward require a doctor’s note to opt out.

“We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said. “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.”

Earlier this week, Alachua further defied the state by extending its two-week mask mandate another eight weeks. School boards in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties voted this week to begin requiring their students to wear masks.

RELATED: Alachua school board votes to extend mask mandate | 4 of Florida’s 5 largest school districts require masks | Judge won’t dismiss parents’ challenge of state’s ban on school mask mandates

READ FDOE ORDERS: Alachua County | Broward County

Raven Williams has four children who attend Alachua County Schools.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Williams said. “I mean, it’s not fair for them to take the funding away but these kids need to have on masks.”

Others believe masks shouldn’t be required.

“I personally think everybody has a right to make their own decisions,” Garth Francis said.

The defiant school boards have the support of the Biden Administration and the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issued a statement Friday afternoon supporting Alachua and Broward counties.

“It is deeply troubling to see state leaders putting politics ahead of the health and safety of our students, and that instead of supporting our educators for doing the right thing, state leaders are trying to punish them,” Cardona said. “This week, the President asked me to do everything I can to help protect our nation’s students and support the local leaders who are fighting for them. Let me reiterate: we stand 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. To that end, we’ve also made clear to district leaders that any financial penalties imposed by the state can be addressed immediately using CARES, CRRSA, or American Rescue Plan funds. Today, 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.”

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden told reporters had instructed Cardona to take additional steps to protect children in schools.

“This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators,” Biden said.

At a Friday afternoon news conference opening another monoclonal antibody clinic, DeSantis fired back.

“To have the federal government come in and overrule the rights of the parent, as if they know better,” DeSantis said. “You have some 5-year-old starting kindergarten and you say they have to be in a mask for eight hours a day -- there is not any evidence to support that. There’s never been.”

A Florida judge on Thursday refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that parents should decide whether their children wear masks at school to combat the coronavirus.

A lawsuit filed Aug. 6 by parents opposed to DeSantis’ executive order specifically banning schools from imposing mask mandates is set for a three-day hearing in Tallahassee next week after the judge refused the state’s request to dismissed it. On Friday, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP and others filed another legal complaint, this one with the federal Fourth District Court of Appeal.

About the Authors:

Renee Beninate is a Florida native and award-winning reporter who joined the News4Jax team in June 2021.