JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In its latest emergency rule issued Wednesday, the Florida Department of Education renewed pressure on local school boards to refrain from mandating face masks without a parental option to opt-out, something at least 10 school districts have done anyway.
The new rule, which included updated quarantine rules allowing parents the choice to send their COVID-19 exposed children to school if they’re asymptomatic, also replaced the Aug. 6 executive order which specifically targeted mask mandates.
The FDOE on Aug. 30 began withholding an amount of state funding equal to the monthly salaries of all school board members in Alachua and Broward Counties -- the first two districts to break with DeSantis’ mask mandate ban -- and promised to continue doing so each month until the mask mandate was repealed.
A similar memo of warning was sent to Alachua County Public Schools, calling the district’s previous interpretation of the mask mandate ban “erroneous,” again threatening continued funding cuts and demanding the district respond to the memo by 5 p.m. Friday.
“As I have done before, if you fail to document full compliance, I intend to recommend to the State Board of Education that the Department of Education withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for all members of the School Board, as well as other sanctions authorized by law, for the period during which the district has been out of compliance,” the memo from Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education made good on a promise to replace those funds withheld by the state government through the Project to Support America’s Families and Educators grant program, also known as “Project SAFE.”
“We launched Project SAFE in particular, to make sure that we are doing all we can to keep kids safely learning in person in school,” White House Senior Policy Advisor for Education Mary Wall said Friday. “We are reviewing all applications that come in on a very expedited basis to make sure that nothing is standing in the way of continuous in-person instruction, and Alachua is the first one.”
The U.S. DOE announced a $147,719 grant to the Alachua County School District on Thursday and promised that other applications were being reviewed and processed.
“Right now, we are very much under a lot of pressure from the state government, the commissioner of education and the governor to essentially act out their will and go along this path of managing COVID,” Alachua County Public Schools superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon said. “I believe [it] to be a pretty careless approach and risky behavior to protect the student body and our staff. It is comforting, though, that we have the President and the US Department of Education that are there to support us.”