State Board of Education votes to investigate Alachua school, superintendent for mask mandate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The state Board of Education on Tuesday voted in favor of a recommendation to “use its enforcement powers” against Alachua County Public Schools after the district defied a statewide order to allow students to opt out of wearing a face mask without a doctor’s note.

With a unanimous vote, the board authorized the Florida Department of Education to investigate the Alachua County School Board and Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon as well as take “all legal steps to enforce rules” of the board and rules of the Florida Department of Health.

According to board chairman Tom Grady, penalties for any violations may include withholding funds from the district and the removal of officers.

“Although I would add a footnote that I do not want to withhold funds in a way that would harm any child in any district,” Grady added.

The State Board of Education on Tuesday voted in favor of a recommendation to “use its enforcement powers” against Alachua County Public Schools after the district defied a statewide order to allow students to opt out of wearing a face mask without a doctor’s note.

The vote comes after the Alachua County School Board put in place a two-week mask mandate for students on Aug. 10 with the chance for students to opt out with a doctor’s note.

“All our families should have the expectations that their parental rights are being protected. We need to protect all rights not just the parents wanting optional masks,” Simon said during the Tuesday emergency meeting.

Grady was critical of Simon and Alachua County and said the board’s job is to uphold state law.

“Unfortunately, we have districts who are picking and choosing what laws they want to follow,” Grady said.

RELATED: Alachua school board votes to extend mask mandate 8 weeks

The board followed the recommendation of Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran who sent a letter ahead of the Tuesday meeting recommending sanctions for the school districts in Alachua and Broward counties for going against an emergency order.

According to Corcoran, because the district requires parents to provide documentation from a medical doctor, osteopathic physician, or a licensed nurse practitioner in order to opt out of the district’s mask mandate, the district is not in compliance with the Florida Department of Health’s emergency rule, which was issued after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order putting a ban on mask mandates.

“Every school board member and every school superintendent have a duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran wrote. “While the district may not agree with the safety protocols set forth by the Surgeon General in the emergency rule, the Surgeon General is the person who, under the law, sets protocols to control COVID-19 in schools. As a result, I recommend that the State Board of Education use its enforcement powers to enforce the health protocols found the Emergency Rule 64DER21-12 and protect the right of parents to make health and educational decisions for their children.”

But Alachua County schools have the support of the Biden Administration and the U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote a letter Friday to DeSantis and Corcoran expressing support for school districts that are making decisions on masks that align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that all students and teachers, vaccinated or unvaccinated, wear masks indoors.

“Florida’s recent actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts students and staff at risk,” he wrote. “I am writing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education (Department) to emphasize the importance of allowing school district leaders to make decisions that ensure safety for their students.”

Cardona said school districts could use federal relief money to offset any penalties or withheld funding imposed by the state.

Also, Tuesday evening, the Alachua County School Board was set to meet at 6 p.m. and will decide whether to extend its mask mandate, The Gainesville Sun reported.

The Sun reported that the school system has 535 students and 60 staff members in quarantine, and a few weeks ago, two custodians died, one of whom was a Gainesville High School employee.

Grady said an investigation may involve public records requests to see how money is being spent within the district including whether they’re being spent for public relations or political purposes.

“And I would also add a report to the legislature with recommendations for the legislature to act and to take whatever additional steps may be necessary to the extent this board lacks the enforcement mechanisms to fully implement the Constitution and the statutes, and the rules of the Department of Health and the Department of Education and other state agencies,” he said.

The State Board of Education will meet again in Miami on Wednesday.

About the Authors:

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.

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