Florida school districts challenging state rules on masks, quarantines

Six school districts have challenged a revised Florida Department of Health rule that seeks to block student mask requirements and allow parents to decide whether children go to school after being exposed to people with COVID-19.

Attorneys for the school boards in Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Duval, Alachua and Leon counties filed the challenge late Wednesday afternoon at the state Division of Administrative Hearings. The districts have required students to wear masks to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19, bucking Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration on the issue.

The challenge contends, in part, that the Department of Health overstepped its authority with the rule, which allows parents to "opt out" of student mask requirements. The school boards also allege that the rule is "arbitrary and capricious" and that the department improperly issued the rule as an emergency measure.

The challenge was filed as the State Board of Education prepared to meet Thursday afternoon to consider whether as many as 11 school districts have violated the Department of Health rule. 

In a statement released prior to the conclusion of the State Board of Education meeting, Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins said it was legal, necessary, and reasonable when the Orange County School Board directed her to implement a mask mandate in the district on Aug. 24 for all students, unless a medical opt-out note was provided.

Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins

Dr. Jenkins said the decision was driven by an alarming rise in COVID-19 positivity data at the time. She noted that in the week before the mandate was implemented, the Florida Department of Health in Orange County reported the county’s coronavirus positivity rate was 18.3%, with 609 cases per 100,000 residents.  That met the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "red status" threshold of high transmission of infection.  

"In OCPS, we saw concerning numbers of new cases, including a record-high 382 the day before that board meeting. I want to assure you that our greatest concern was the safety of our students and staff," she added.

Dr. Jenkins said the district's mask strategy has had a positive impact on the data. 

"In  September of last year, we had 220 positive cases with about one-third of our students in attendance.  By the end of October, we had experienced 4 school closures--pivots to virtual learning.  This year, in September we had 3,107 positive cases in our schools, with full attendance. To date, we have had no school closures. We have seen a sharp decline in positive cases after the mask requirement took effect, and health care professionals have commended the intervention," she said.

The Department of Education has already imposed penalties on Alachua and Broward counties, withholding money equal to the amounts of school-board member salaries --- though the federal government has stepped in to cover the lost money.

Watch FOX 35 Orlando for the latest Central Florida news.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.