Florida to dock school district salaries for requiring masks

Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on pandemic mask mandates in classrooms, state education officials ruled Thursday.

The Florida State Board of Education approved plans to deduct an amount equal to a month’s pay from school board members in eight counties, including in some of the state’s biggest cities. It will also reduce overall funding to the counties if they receive federal grants intended to blunt the state’s fines.

The penalties would go into effect in 48 hours if the districts do not let parents opt their children out of mask mandates in the schools.

The ruling follows legal and public debate over the state’s mask policy and escalates a feud between the DeSantis administration and the White House, which has pledged to cover such sanctions with federal dollars. DeSantis, a Republican, is eyeing a possible 2024 presidential run.

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State Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said the county school officials have violated state law by enforcing mask mandates. He recommended the state move to offset the impact of any federal reimbursements.

"We will not be strong-armed, nor will we allow others to be," said Corcoran. "Should the federal government’s efforts stray even slightly from justice to deter parental rights or lawful speech, they should prepare for a very swift and zealous response."

Masks in schools have become one of the latest fronts in the partisan fight over coronavirus regulations. Like DeSantis, some Republican governors have moved to ban mask mandates, though policies on face coverings, testing and quarantines in schools vary widely across the country.

More than 5.5 million children in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19, with 20% of child cases coming since the school year began, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Citing infections, some school districts backed off of in-person learning after schools reopened in August. Kids are at lower risk of severe illness or death, but at least 498 have died.

Just as Florida’s schools were preparing for the 2021-2022 school year this summer, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations were surging in the state, fueled by the delta variant, adding a sense of urgency to the mask debate. However, the state’s outbreak has declined substantially since then, with hospitalizations going from more than 17,000 in late August to just over 4,000 on Thursday.

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School officials from the eight counties generally argued that their mask rules were in line with state laws and are necessary to protect kids and staffers, with some noting coronavirus deaths among students or teachers. Many also referred to guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends teachers, staff and students all wear masks regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated.

"By then end of the first week-and-a-half of school, it became evident that, to keep our students safe and our schools open, we had to make a change," said Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna, citing rising case rates and the virus-related death of a student. "We were forced to implement a slightly more stringent mask policy than we originally had in place at the start the school year."

In addition to Leon County, the other counties included in the decision are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach. Alachua and Broward counties previously had school district salaries withheld over mask rules.