Florida vs Masks


Avery Owens

As Florida’s COVID cases rise, schools decide whether mask mandates should be put in place. More and more districts across the state slowly opposed their governor’s decision.

Olivia Zavala, Staffer

A battle between Florida’s schools and the government brings to light nationwide the argument between individual choice or choosing for the population’s well-being. Parents voiced their opinions, both for and against mask mandates within schools, but ultimately, the judge made the final decision. On Tuesday, August 17, 2021, Fla. education officials voted to investigate and penalize two school districts, Broward and Alachua County, for mandating masks as it goes against Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) ban on mask mandates. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran argues that districts were not complying with the law. 

“These districts, maybe while well-intentioned, have not followed the protocols,” Corcoran said. “They have to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not.” 

The governor’s office threatened Fla. districts that budgets would be cut, and blocked salaries for school officials would take place if masks were mandated within the districts. The Biden administration countered by offering to fund Fla. school districts defying the governor’s mask ban. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent a letter to DeSantis and Corcoran on Friday, August 13, 2021, regarding the matter.    

“I am writing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education to emphasize the importance of allowing school district leaders to make decisions that ensure safety for their students,” Cardona continues to stress the Department’s support with these districts. “The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”    

The Biden administration offers to use federal funds to pay the salaries of administrators and board members withheld by the state for defying the order. Cardona specifies The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act) that provides $7 billion to Florida’s students and educators through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). Still, the Florida Department of Education (FL DOE) has prevented the availability of these funds to Florida’s school districts for their “intended purpose.” It is said that even if the state does not fulfill its duty to make the ARP ESSER funds available to the districts, the schools still have the ability to utilize the ESSER funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act or the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSAA).    

Cardona said, “any threat by Florida to withhold salaries from superintendents and school board members who are working to protect students and educators (or to levy other financial penalties) can be addressed using ESSER funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts.” 

These claims of federal funding were soon addressed in an email by DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw. 

“It is surprising that the White House would rather spend money for the salaries of bureaucratic superintendents and elected politicians,” Pushaw said, “who don’t believe that parents have a right to choose what’s best for their children than on Florida’s students, which is what these funds should be used for.” 

Carlee Simon, Alachua County Public School Superintendent, argued that the district’s mask mandate did not violate any state laws because parents are eligible to opt out by using Florida’s Hope Scholarship voucher program to transfer their children to private schools. Leanetta McNealy, School Board of Alachua County Chairwoman, said she did have concerns regarding the punishment from the state government, but risking her salary did not compare to the well-being of the students in her county. Vickie Cartwright, Broward County interim schools superintendent, shares McNealy’s sentiment concerning the mask mandate. Both districts are motivated by the lack of capacity and ICU beds within their respective hospitals due to the worsening COVID-19 wave. 

As Fla. currently sits at the country’s highest COVID-19 case rate, with a reported 151,415 new cases, 31,700 being 19 years old or younger, more and more districts follow suit in defying Gov. DeSantis’s orders to punish mask mandates despite the threats to pull funding. Amid these threats from the Florida state government and education officials, Fla.’s largest school district, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, approved the mask mandate with a 7-1 vote on Wednesday, August18, 2021.    

“Today, I received messages from three former State Board of Education members, including two chairs, asking me to do the right thing. If the consequence at any point in my career is a threat to my own position, it is OK,” Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. 

Miami-Dade’s mask mandate decision is supported by the county’s Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.    

“I applaud the Miami-Dade School Board and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho for following the science and putting the health and well-being of our children first,” said Levine Cava. 

After 10,384 students and 338 staffers in Plant High School’s own district have been isolated or quarantined with 2,013 confirmed COVID-19 cases, Hillsborough County, the seventh-largest school district in the U.S., also pushes through its 30-day mask mandate on Wednesday, August18, 2021, following an emergency school board meeting with a 5-2 vote. Parents were still given the ability to opt-out students with a note from a medical provider. 

“Right now, I think it’s really important to mask our children,” Hillsborough County board member Nadia T. Combs said. “I’m not here for politics, I’m here to keep kids in school.”    

Following suit late Wednesday night, August 18, 2021, the School District of Palm Beach County amends their mask mandate with a 6-1 vote implementing a 90-day emergency mandate and limiting exemptions for medical reasons, specifically students covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This new order replaces their previous, allowing parents to opt children out of the mask requirement, which more than 10,000 students used. Soon after this decision was made, the morning of Thursday, August19, 2021, DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw made a statement.   

“No politician is above the law, even the Palm Beach County school board members,” Pushaw said. “It is disappointing that the school board chose to change their mask policy — which had previously protected the freedom for parents to opt their kids out, in compliance with Florida law.”   

DeSantis continues to make claims in standing by the “parental choice” to whether their children should wear masks. The back and forth between Biden and DeSantis continues as President Joe Biden directed the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday, August18, 2021, to explore “possible enforcement options” against the governors attempting to prevent school districts from imposing their own universal mask mandates. As of now, nearly 40 percent of Fla.’s schools are or will be attending school with mask mandates, with few other big districts likely to implement their mandates as this fight over personal liberty versus collective responsibility continues. As of Friday, August 20, 2021, Fla. has given Alachua and Broward County 48 hours to reverse their mask mandate, or they will face a penalty. Required by the State Board of Education, the initial step being both counties will be required to submit a list of the annual salaries of all school board members, which will result in the Board withholding 1/12 of that amount each month from the district’s funds.   

“If necessary, we will pursue legal action to ensure that we maintain local control over our schools.” Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said, “and are able to meet our obligation to provide a safe learning environment for all students.”

Decided on Friday, August 27, 2021, a Fla. judge ruled that districts have the right to set policies for their own schools. The decision was finalized by Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Copper after a three-day trial with at least 10 Fla. school boards voting to defy DeSantis and implement mask requirements void of parental opt-out forms. Cooper clarified that his ruling was not against Gov. DeSantis but to bar state agencies from enforcing the governor’s order on local mask mandates, which goes against Fla.’s separation of powers statutes. Judge Cooper said DeSantis’ order and the Board of Education’s actions against mask mandates are “without legal authority.” Two Florida Supreme Court decisions from 1914 and 1939 were mentioned to support that individual rights are restricted by their influence on the rights of others.

“I think it is important for students to wear masks in school because this is bigger than all of us,” senior Katie Pricher said.