Mask wars heat up as DeSantis threatens 'consequences' for districts

Whether Florida students will be required to "mask up" in schools this year has become an issue of national interest, and one that appears far from being resolved.

The fight over school districts’ attempts to set their own student mask mandates has headed to the courts, marking a new development in the power struggle between Gov. Ron DeSantis, local school officials, and the federal government.

Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper is slated to start a hearing Monday in a lawsuit challenging DeSantis’ July 30 executive order on school mask mandates, after Cooper rejected the state’s motion to dismiss the case. The lawsuit was filed by a group of parents, including some who say their children are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

"These parents and children, they have a right to have their case heard in court," Cooper said during Thursday’s hearing.

DeSantis maintains that parents should be able to choose whether their kids should wear masks at school. Asked by reporters Thursday about a decision by Hillsborough County’s school board to require masks for 30 days, DeSantis said the board took that decision "out of the parents’ hands."

The governor’s executive order, which seeks to prohibit county school boards from requiring students to wear masks, triggered a state Department of Health rule that requires parents to be allowed to opt-out of such mandates for any reason.

As the question about mask mandates is set to play out in court, state education officials have ratcheted up pressure on local school board members and superintendents.

The State Board of Education on Tuesday directed Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to further "investigate" school districts that implement mask mandates with exceptions only for medical reasons.

The board on Friday followed through on its threat to financially penalize local school officials who impose student mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, detailing how it is targeting salaries of school board members in Alachua and Broward counties.

If the districts don't comply, the state will withhold district funds in amounts equal to the collective monthly salaries of the school board members. Friday's orders made clear that the financial penalties are aimed at the salaries of officials who voted for the mask requirements and that funding for such things as programs and services for students should not be dinged.

The list of districts enacting mask mandates this week grew to five, with school boards in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Hillsborough counties joining Alachua and Broward in voting to require a doctor’s note for parents wishing to opt-out.

The effort by DeSantis, Corcoran, and other state officials to prohibit mask mandates has drawn criticism from President Joe Biden’s administration.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona discussed the issue Friday when he appeared on "The Florida Roundup" show on Miami public radio station WLRN. Cardona said he spoke to Corcoran "maybe a week and a half ago" and had "a good conversation" where the two agreed that vaccinations are a good way to fight COVID-19 spread in schools.

"I think where we disagree is that the use of mitigation strategies to help prevent community spread will also help keep our schools open. And we’re seeing that in communities across the country that are less likely to use mitigation strategies --- we’re seeing more community spread, and we know that leads to school closures," Cardona said on the program.

Cardona wrote in a letter to Florida school superintendents last week that the department "stands with you" in enacting universal student mask policies despite the state’s efforts to prohibit them.

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