The decision is the latest conflict in a long-running battle between state and local school officials over whether masks are required.
An emergency rule by the Florida Department of Health in September said parents have the right to decide whether their children wear masks to school. About a dozen school districts implemented the mask mandate anyway, with only limited exceptions, such as authorization from a medical professional to opt out.
Thursday’s decision comes nearly two months after the board voted to penalize the districts of Alachua and Broward counties by withholding funds equal to the salaries of local school board members. Because the Biden administration made up for those lost money by providing federal grant money to districts, the state board of education on Thursday directed the education commissioner to withhold additional funding equal to the grant money from those districts.
State Board of Education President Tom Grady said, “Every school board member and every school superintendent has a duty to obey the law, whether they agree to it or not.”
The decision marks the latest clash in a long-running battle between state and local school officials over whether masks are required. The Biden administration has jumped into the fray, with school leaders passing the mask mandate and assuring them it will cover any funding shortfalls caused by the restrictions. It awarded the Alachua School Board more than $147,000 and Broward more than $420,000.
State and federal lawsuits challenging Florida’s order forbidding school mask mandates have yielded opposite rulings that are subject to appeal.
While Florida was leading the country in new Covid-19 cases at the start of the school year in August, the wave of infections has subsided in recent weeks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state reported 129 cases per 100,000 people in the past week, lower than the US average of 201.
In Thursday’s conference call, members of the Board of Education withdrew potential penalties against three districts—in Hillsborough, Indian River and Sarasota counties—after changing their policies and coming into compliance with the law.
Superintendents of other districts under investigation said their decisions on mask rules were guided by a mandate to provide a safe environment for students and were arrived at in consultation with local health officials.
Alachua County Public Schools superintendent Carly Simon said, “We… ask that you honor the long-standing principle of local control by allowing school districts to make decisions that best meet the needs of their communities. “
As the state board of education was meeting on Thursday, Ian Rosenblum, a deputy assistant secretary for the US Department of Education, wrote an email to Corcoran calling for the state to withdraw additional funding from districts receiving federal grant money. The move has raised legal concerns under federal law. .
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