11 Florida districts now face threat of new fines in student mask battle

Meanwhile, Arizona's governor is warned about using funds to sidestep local mask mandates
By: | October 6, 2021

Florida has now threatened to dock federal grant funds from districts that continue to disobey Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran sent several letters to the state board of education asking its members to punish several districts that have kept mask requirements in place throughout the 2021-22 school year.

He has asked the state board to withhold “state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds awarded” to noncompliant districts.

As Florida’s mask mandate battle raged this summer, the Biden Administration launched Project SAFE to cover any funds the state stripped from districts over masks and other COVID safety precautions.

The massive districts in Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties are among the school systems facing the DeSantis administration’s latest sanctions.

In response, Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes Tampa, adjusted its mask mandate to allow parents to opt out without medical documentation. The rate of infections have dropped significantly since the school board imposed a mask mandate in August, the district said on its website.

Alachua County Public Schools also loosened its mask mandate slightly for high school students.

Brevard Public Schools will allow parents to opt out of its mask mandate if COVID cases in the county fall below 50 per 100,000 people, the district announced Tuesday.

But Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke told WPTV.com that COVID rates in his schools have to continue to decline before the district changes its mask mandate.

“I’m encouraged. We’d like to see the numbers continue to go down,” Burke told WPTV. “We’d like to get to a place where we feel like it’s safe to revisit our facial covering policy.”

Vaccinations required for more students

Cambridge Public Schools on Oct. 6 made the COVID vaccine mandatory. It requires all eligible students to get vaccinated by Nov. 22. On Nov. 29, unvaccinated students will not be allowed to participate in sports, performing arts or other extra-curricular activities.

Florida’s Department of Education had previously cut district funding equivalent to the salaries of school board members who voted in favor of mask mandates. It has also sued several districts. In turn, parents, advocates for students with disabilities and a number of superintendents have filed lawsuits against the state over the ban.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is also investigating Florida’s mask mandate ban for potentially violating the civil rights of students with disabilities and limiting their access to equal education.

Arizona warned over mask maneuvers

Arizona’s attempt to steer American Rescue Plan relief funds to districts that are not mandating masks has drawn a warning from the Biden Administration.

The U.S. Treasury Department says a state plan to steer ESSER funds toward districts without mask requirement violates the terms of the relief funding plan.

Another proposal to give students vouchers to transfer to districts without mask mandates also does not comply with ARP regulations, Deputy Treasury Secretary Adewale Adeyemo wrote in a letter to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday.

Relief funds must be used to mitigate the fiscal effects stemming from the pandemic, including by working to stop the spread of the virus, Adeyemo wrote: “A program or service that imposes conditions on participation or acceptance of the service that would undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 or discourage compliance with evidence-based solutions for stopping the spread of COVID-19 is not a permissible use.”