The Florida state board of education on Thursday sanctioned eight school districts that have violated Gov. Ron DeSantis' order requiring schools that implement mask mandates to let parents opt their kids out.
The board unanimously voted to sanction school districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Palm Beach Counties, withholding state funding from these districts equal to the School Board members' salaries plus any amount of federal funding the Biden administration makes available to support the schools in defiance of DeSantis' order.
The counties have 48 hours to demonstrate they are in compliance with the state order else they will lose funding.
The education department said in a statement the offending school districts have "willingly and knowingly violated the rights of students and parents by denying them the option to make personal and private health care and educational decisions for their children."
The state further contends that the school boards in Alachua and Broward Counties have "unlawfully accepted political bailouts from federal co-conspirators to compensate them for breaking Florida law."
"For nearly two months now, these school districts have barred from the school house doors thousands of children, many of whom have significant disabilities or health-related reasons that prevent them from learning with a face mask on," said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.
"What's so equally disturbing about these school board members' gross violations of law, violations of law that are now receiving unprecedented and self-gratifying federal patronage from a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., is that weeks of positivity rate data now shows no difference in districts with unlawful mask mandates versus those communities that protect parents' rights," he added.
"Forced masking is a failure and these board members have truly failed to lead and failed their oaths of office."
Last month, President Joe Biden's administration pledged to create a federal grant program to cover fines or fees incurred by school districts that impose mask mandates. The school districts in Alachua and Broward Counties, which were already facing fines for their mask mandates in August, were the first districts to receive federal aid.
After Thursday's action by the state board of education, Alachua will be fined an additional $147,000 and Broward faces $420,000 more in fines, amounts equal to the federal funding they received, the Tampa Bay Times reports.
School superintendents from the offending districts criticized the sanctions and some said they would not change their mask requirements.
"Despite the state board's action, Alachua County Public Schools will maintain its current masking protocols. We believe those protocols comply with state law and our constitutional obligation to provide students with a safe learning environment," said Alachua school superintendent Carlee Simon in a statement.
Permitted to state their positions before the board's decision on Thursday, several superintendents said the mask requirements were necessary to keep children and faculty safe from the surge of Delta variant COVID-19 cases in their communities.
"Only eight days into the school year, we reported 492 COVID-19 cases," said Duval superintendent Diana Greene. "At less than one week, we were already at 19 percent of the total cases reported for the entire 2020-21 school year."
Greene said the state was too slow to respond. "The Florida Department of Health's inability to conduct timely case investigations had a direct impact on the spread of the virus throughout our schools, ultimately jeopardizing the health and safety of students and employees," she said, adding that 10 employees died of COVID within the first two weeks of school.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools adopt universal mask requirements, and these superintendents argued they were following the recommendations of experts.
However, Corcoran pointed to statistics showing there is only a 2 percentage point difference in COVID cases between schools that require masks and schools that give parents an opt out.
"And so, unsurprisingly, as we have said all along, we are seeing no impact of forced masks in the schools," he said.