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Fla. Districts That Required Masks Could Face $200 Million Punishment

South Florida and Orlando school districts say they were trying to keep students and their families safe when they required students to wear masks on campus last year.

Legislators in Tallahassee say that in doing so, a dozen school districts broke Florida law and should face consequences. The Florida House of Representatives moved forward on Wednesday with a plan to punish the school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on face mask mandates for students last year.

The proposal, called Putting Parents First, would strip a total of $200 million from a dozen school districts that defied DeSantis. That includes Broward County, Palm Beach County, and Miami-Dade County school districts, as well as the Orange County school district in Orlando.

The money will come out of the salaries of about 1,600 non-teaching school employees that make over $100,000, and would be spread among the 55 school districts that didn’t impose mask mandates. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, recommended the proposal and suggested that the 12 districts had more money than they needed to pay “bureaucrats,” such as superintendents and administrators working in central offices, making more than double the starting salary of a school teacher.

House Democrats in the appropriations committee said they disagreed with the measure, calling it unfair and questioning its constitutionality.

They also questioned how Fine could say the move was not punitive, a point he maintained throughout the meeting.

Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, advocated on behalf of the parents who supported mask mandates.

“In a lot of cases, parents like me who didn’t want our students going to school where they would pick something up and bring it home,” he said, adding that his wife is recovering from cancer and other families surely have immunocompromised loved ones at home.

Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said he thought it was a mistake to limit local school boards who are elected to make decisions for their communities.

“I believe there are a lot of intended and unintended consequences,” he said, adding that even if it might be good to “trim the fat” from school systems, that should be up to local school boards to do the best thing for their community in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

A tale of state versus local control

By the summer of 2021, students and teachers had endured a school year of remote learning and isolation, which hampered instruction and put some students further behind in school.

State leaders decided it was time for students and teachers to return to campus, even as the delta variant spiked daily. The governor issued an executive order against requiring masks, warning school districts that were considering mandates to let parents choose.

When students returned, many had to quarantine due to exposure in their classes, and some of the most populous school districts determined that masks were necessary to protect kids, their families, and teachers.

As the school year progressed, school board members and superintendents sat through lengthy meetings where anti-mask protesters flooded public comment with misinformation and even threatened them and their families.

The feud continued for months, as state leaders threatened to withhold funds and remove School Board members. Finally, some of the School Boards banded together to take a stand against the governor’s ban and challenged it in court, including Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Alachua County school districts, among others.

Those districts questioned the state’s authority to pass such a rule that was contrary to federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before those issues were resolved in court, DeSantis’ executive order was cemented in state law during a special legislative session in November. DeSantis signed HB 1B that prohibited vaccine and mask requirements in schools.

There was no immediate effect at the time, since the school district had already decided to make masks optional for everyone since the county had met a benchmark of positivity rates below 3%.

A few weeks later, the omicron variant burned through South Florida. Though omicron’s effects appeared less severe than the previous variants, positivity rates spiked again. South Florida’s school districts again mandated masks, but only for adults on campus.

Districts react

The Broward County Council of PTAs said in a statement that the measure to remove money from districts would hurt children in schools.

“As child advocates, we are very disappointed in the provision to fine school districts for responding to local conditions and community input and taking appropriate action to protect our children,” the statement reads. “Any financial penalties assessed on the district ultimately affects the education and well-being of our children.”

Next, the provision will be up for a vote on the House floor. The council said it would work with the legislature to remove the provision during the conference process with the Senate.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Feb. 10, four states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Six additional states have such bans, but they have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia require masks to be worn in schools, down from a high of 18 states and the District of Columbia earlier this school year.

  • MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT

    1. Florida


    On Sept. 22, Florida’s surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians “sole discretion” over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18, Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Oklahoma


    On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of school mask mandates if they choose.

    3. Texas


    On Dec. 1, an appeals court halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.

    4. Utah


    In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED

    1. Arizona


    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

    2. Arkansas


    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. Iowa


    On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. On Jan. 25, a federal appeals panel narrowed that injunction, allowing enforcement of the ban, in all but 10 districts. The panel’s decision has yet to take effect, so the state is still not enforcing the ban.

    4. South Carolina


    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    5. Tennessee

    6. Virginia

    On Feb. 4, a judge issued a temporary restraining order that prohibits enforcement of Gov. Youngkin’s executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate.

    MASK REQUIREMENT IN EFFECT


    1. California


    2. Connecticut


    On Feb. 7, Gov. Lamont announced that the school mask rule would expire Feb. 28.


    3. Delaware


    On Feb. 7, Gov. Carney amended his emergency order to allow his state-level school mask requirement to expire March 31.


    4. District of Columbia


    5. Hawaii


    6. Louisiana


    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, and most recently extended on Jan. 19, students are required to wear masks in schools, but districts can opt out of the mandate if they adopt an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state’s department of health protocols.


    7. Maryland


    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but newly allowed school districts to opt out if at least 80% of the county or 80% of their students and staff have been fully vaccinated.


    8. Massachusetts


    On Feb. 9, Massachusetts officials announced the statewide mask requirement for K-12 schools will be lifted on February 28. On Sept. 27, the state began allowing schools to apply for a waiver from the face covering rules if 80% of their students and staff have been vaccinated. If a school reaches the 80% threshold, unvaccinated students and employees are still required to wear masks.


    9. New Jersey

    On Feb. 7, Gov. Murphy announced plans to end his state’s school-mask requirement on March 7.


    10. New Mexico


    11. New York


    12. Oregon


    Oregon health officials said the state would drop its school mask requirement no later than March 31.


    13. Rhode Island


    On Feb. 9, Gov McKee announced the school mask mandate would only remain in effect until March 4. His decision is contingent upon the extension of his COVID-19 emergency powers, which are set to expire mid February.


    14. Washington

    PREVIOUSLY HAD MASK REQUIREMENT


    1. Illinois


    In Illinois, a judge issued a temporary restraining order on the governor’s statewide mask requirement. The Feb. 5 decision prevents school districts statewide from requiring students to wear masks.


    2. Kentucky


    Kentucky’s school mask mandate ended in September, when the state legislature voted to limit the governor’s emergency powers.


    3. Nevada


    On Feb. 10, Gov. Sisolak announced the immediate suspension of the school mask requirement. The previous mask requirement had only applied to counties with populations of 100,000 people or more.


    4. Pennsylvania


    A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schoolchildren was thrown out by the state Supreme Court on December 10.


    5. Virginia


    On Jan. 15, Gov. Youngkin issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their child out of any school mask mandate. It effectively rescinded the state’s school mask requirement that had been put in place since August. The executive order was later halted by a judge.

  • NOTES
    In Missouri, the state attorney general has sued some school districts that require masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 are illegal. (The ruling is being interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he was also cracking down on schools with mask mandates.
    Updated 02/10/2022 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here




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