State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is looking to enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ threat to withhold the salaries of school officials in Alachua and Leon counties if they don’t comply with a state rule aimed at allowing parents to decide whether children wear masks in school.
DeSantis issued an executive order on July 30 seeking to prevent local school boards from imposing mask mandates on students during the COVID-19 pandemic. That led to the state Department of Health on Friday approving a rule that, in part, requires allowing parents to opt out of mask requirements.
Leon and Alachua counties decided to require parents to submit doctors’ notes for children to be exempt from wearing masks --- drawing objections from Corcoran.
“The emergency rule does not require parents to submit medical documentation from a physician or a nurse practitioner in order to opt out, and any such requirement is inconsistent with the emergency rule,” Corcoran wrote in nearly identical letters Monday to leaders of both districts.
Corcoran reiterated DeSantis’ position that parents should be able to decide whether children wear masks.
“There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children,” Corcoran wrote.
Corcoran addressed his letters to Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, Leon County School Board Chairwoman Georgia “Joy” Bowen, Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon and Alachua County School Board Chairwoman Leanetta McNealy.
The only difference between Corcoran’s two letters was a deadline for the districts to provide written responses “documenting how your district is complying” with the Department of Health rule. For Alachua, that deadline was 5 p.m. Tuesday; for Leon, it is 5 p.m. Wednesday.
“Depending on the facts presented, I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board,” Corcoran said.
McNealy called Corcoran’s letter to Alachua school officials “threatening” but said during an online news conference hosted by the Florida Democratic Party that the district doesn’t plan to change course.
“We will not switch. I can only speak from my position, I am not going to switch, and I have three other colleagues who sit with me (on the board). I think just from my gut feeling, and from what the surge and spike (in COVID-19 cases) is in Alachua County, I don’t see any of them wanting to switch as well,” McNealy said.
Before the press conference formally began, participants talked about DeSantis and Corcoran threatening to withhold salaries, and McNealy responded, “let them go right ahead.”
Asked by The News Service of Florida whether the Leon County schools would reverse course on requiring doctors’ notes after Corcoran’s letter, district spokesman Chris Petley said Tuesday afternoon the district did not have a statement on the matter.
Meanwhile Tuesday, the Broward County School Board voted to require masks for students, despite the threat to school officials' salaries. The school year is set to begin Wednesday in Broward.
Corcoran’s letters came a day after a DeSantis spokeswoman said the State Board of Education would pursue penalties against school officials, rather than the overall districts, “as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law.”
DeSantis’ political adversaries defended local school officials Tuesday.
“A lot of school boards and superintendents are stepping up to the plate, regardless of ramifications both politically and financially,” state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2022, said during a news conference at the Capitol.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat who is an attorney, was asked during a news conference held Tuesday by the House Democratic caucus for her legal opinion on whether school boards could find ways to pay superintendents and board members despite the threats from Corcoran and DeSantis.
“I think each school district would have to look at that on a basis to see if they could provide that funding to their superintendents and school boards without impacting programs,” Driskell told reporters.
But President Joe Biden’s administration, which has locked horns with DeSantis on COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools, is weighing whether to intervene.
“We are continuing to look for ways … for the U.S. government to support districts and schools as they try to follow the science, do the right thing and save lives,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing Tuesday.
As the school year begins this week in many districts, DeSantis questioned whether the delta variant of the coronavirus is responsible for an increase in children being admitted to hospitals, saying "you've not seen a change in the proportion of the young people who end up being admitted" to the hospital.
Driskell, however, argued Tuesday that “delta is different” than the initial version of the virus that rocked the state last year.
“We’re starting to see hospitalizations of children, which is not something that we saw in the first wave,” Driskell said.
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