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Florida Board of Education: Districts broke law with mask mandates

Florida Board of Education: Districts broke law with mask mandates
Florida's school board voted to allow the state's education commissioner to investigate and punish two districts that required students without medical exemptions to wear masks. File Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 17 (UPI) -- Florida's State Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday that two school districts violated state law by requiring students without medical exemptions to wear masks due to COVID-19.

In an emergency meeting Tuesday night, the board authorized the state's education commissioner to "take all legal steps" against districts in Alachua and Broward counties for defying an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis barring mask mandates.

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Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran was granted permission to investigate the districts and impose penalties such as withholding funds, salaries, removing officers and reviewing conduct including how money is being spent for public relations or other political activities.

The Alachua school board voted to require masks for the first two weeks of classes and the Broward board voted to maintain its original mask mandate first approved on July 28.

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Earlier Tuesday, Corcoran issued two memorandums stating he found probable cause that both schools acted contrary to state law, violating DeSantis' executive action.

"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."

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During Tuesday's meeting, Alachua County schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said her mask mandate did not infringe on the state's requirements as parents could still make use of Florida's Hope Scholarship voucher program to transfer to a private school.

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Board member Ben Gibson, however, said that scholarship is meant to be used for students experiencing harassment related to COVID-19 safety protocols and said the process to obtain a scholarship is "burdensome."

State officials including Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer and Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried called in during the meeting.

"Shame on all of you," Fried said to the board. "How embarrassing that you may be more afraid of the governor than you are for the lives of our children and teachers who are already getting sick and dying in record numbers."

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U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week urged DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who issued a similar order, to rescind their bans and allow school districts to set their own safety requirements. Abbott tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has also said federal funds could be used to pay salaries in districts where school officials are punished by DeSantis.

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