Despite state pressure, Alachua school board votes to extend mask mandate

Alachua County students must wear masks for at least another eight weeks after the school board voted unanimously to extend its mask mandate.

As the state Board of Education agreed to use enforcement powers against Alachua County Public Schools over its mask mandate late Tuesday, the school board voted to extend the district’s mandate eight more weeks.

The BOE found probable cause that both Alachua County and Broward County school districts are out of compliance with the Department of Health rule that requires parents to be given the right to opt their kids out of mask mandates.

State leaders suggested Alachua and Broward school officials should have taken their objection to the opt-out requirement to the courts instead of ignoring the law outright.

While the school districts have not yet filed suit themselves, a challenge to the mask mandate ban has been filed by parents. A circuit court judge is scheduled to consider whether or not to allow that suit to go forward Thursday afternoon.

The exact consequences of the violations aren’t yet clear.

“I think that there is this ominous threat of what they plan on doing next,” said Alachua School Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon. “We would like to have a very robust understanding of what our steps are.”

The Miami-Dade and Hillsborough County school boards met Wednesday to discuss their masking policies and voted to follow Alachua and Broward’s lead.

In Alachua County’s board meeting Tuesday night, attendees for and against masking requirements sounded off during public comment.

“For more than 500 days, I have spent every single day worrying about (our children’s) safety and have fought every single day to try and give them every single thing they need. Universal masking saves lives and reduces transmission of this horrible infection,” a physician said.

People against masking made their concerns heard, too.

“Our faces are avatars. We use them to present to the world. It’s how we present to the communities and society at large. It’s how our children determine if somebody is safe to interact with,” an Alachua County mother said.

Alachua’s mandate was originally a two-week mask mandate for students beginning Aug. 10. Students could opt out with a doctor’s note which violates a statewide order to let students opt out without requiring any medical recommendations, referrals or permissions.

According to state Board of Education 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.

Withheld funds or not, The White House and the United States Department of Education have expressed their support for the Alachua County School District saying school districts can use federal money for any penalties around making imposed by the state of Florida.

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 state Board of Education on Tuesday 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.

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.

President of the Florida Education Association, Andrew Spar, argued that school officials’ primary duty is ensuring the safety and security of the students they serve.

“And I don’t believe the governor’s order limits their ability to do that,” said Spar.

At the conclusion of the State Board of Education meeting Tuesday, there were questions about what consequences school districts will face for not providing an parental opt-out from mask mandates.

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.