Florida Schools With Mask Mandates Lose Funding
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story was reported by Health News Florida on WUSF.
The state Department of Education said Tuesday it was investigating the school districts of Hillsborough, Sarasota and Orange counties over mask mandates that do not allow for a parental exemption.
In a letter to district officials, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote the districts were in violation of a state Department of Health emergency rule triggered by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order intended to block districts from enacting school mask mandates.
On Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled the executive order was unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. However, DeSantis said an appeal is planned and his office has said it will continue to act in defense of parents’ rights until a signed judge’s order was issued.
Corcoran’s letters were sent Friday, and the three districts were given until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond. If they remain noncompliant, they could face financial penalties. All three counties have mandates that allow exemptions only for medical reasons with a medical professional’s note.
On Aug. 20, Corcoran issued similar letters to the Alachua and Broward school districts. Both refused to change policies and were found to be noncompliant. Corcoran announced Monday that his department has withheld an amount equal to monthly school board member salaries in both counties.
Twelve school districts have enacted mask mandates with no parental opt-outs since DeSantis’ order was issued July 30.
Cooper issued an injunction barring Corcoran, the Department of Education and the Board of Education from enforcing the governor’s order. The health department was not a defendant in the lawsuit, and Cooper decided he could not strike down the health department rule that said any local school mask mandates must allow parents to opt out.
DeSantis has said he believes parents should make health decision for their children, and the Parents Bill of Rights is a new state law that served as a foundation for his executive order.
Meantime, the Hernando County School Board held an emergency meeting on Tuesday and decided to implement a mandatory mask mandate with a parental opt-out. The district previously only recommended that masks be worn in class.
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Stephanie Colombini is a healthcare reporter for WUSF in Tampa, Florida.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Time now to check in on the state of science.
SPEAKER 1: This is KRE– for WWNO– St. Louis Public Radio– Iowa Public Radio News.
IRA FLATOW: Local stories with national significance. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis is crusading against masks in schools, prompting a legal battle between the state and school districts that want kids to mask up. This is happening during an unprecedented surge in COVID cases in Florida due to the Delta variant. Now that many Floridian kids are back to school, how are they playing into the growing caseload? And what’s the latest with the legal battle? Joining me today to shed some light on this is my guest, Stephanie Colombini, health care reporter for WUSF in Tampa, Florida. Welcome to Science Friday, Stephanie.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Are kids back to school in Florida for the most part?
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: Yeah, Florida gets a pretty early start compared to some other parts of the country. So we had kids back in class on August 10 and more have returned as the month went on. But we kind of started to see problems almost immediately with the Delta variant. So thousands of students and staff in some areas have already had to go into quarantine due to positive COVID cases or being exposed to someone in class. So back to school has not been a typical experience for everyone.
IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. And let’s talk about this wild legal battle that’s going on in Florida. Walk us through what’s been happening with this ban on mask mandates.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: It has been pretty wild. And right now, we’re sort of in limbo, but it all started with a parents’ bill of rights law, and that went into effect earlier this summer. And it basically says parents have the final say about their kids health care. And then Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools, and he argues that districts that do require them are violating that bill of rights. So that’s kind of the nut of all of this.
RON DESANTIS: Because when you’re talking about forcing somebody to wear– particularly these really young kids– and to wear a mask six, seven, eight hours a day, the parent knows what effects that has on them. The parent’s in the best situation to know how does that affect their learning, their attention.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: But it was actually a group of parents who sued the state over this. And a judge recently sided with them. And he ruled the governor’s ban is unconstitutional. Said in the same way, you know, schools can require kids get a measles vaccine, for example, in order to protect the broader student body, they can have other health requirements, so long as they’re reasonable. And he said following CDC guidelines on masks is reasonable. And then the judge blocked the state from enforcing the ban and punishing districts that have these mandates, because the state had threatened to withhold funding.
Well, the state went ahead and did it anyway this week, and they withheld funding that amounted to the salaries of school board members from two districts in Broward and Alachua County as they were sort of the first ones to really defy the state with these mandates. But more had followed suit, and now they’re under investigation from state officials, and facing the same threats. Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located, is one of them. The governor is defending the move says the state is appealing the case, but we have also seen more districts approve this mandates since the ruling. So now about half the students in the state attend public schools where masking is in place. So we’ll see what happens next.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Do we expect aid coming from Washington? I know the White House said that any school that was punished, they would make up the money.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: That is what they had proposed when these threats were kind of first made. We’re still waiting to see how it’s all going to pan out. But the Biden administration had said that schools who were punished could use federal stimulus money to make up for any lost funding. So it is definitely possible that these districts will make it out OK financially. But at the same time, had they not lost money from the state, those federal dollars could go towards something else. So school officials are definitely very concerned, and we have heard some districts are exploring their own legal options.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Is a ban on mask mandates with Floridians even one?
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: That depends on who you ask. The political divisions in Florida right now are very much reflective of what you see across the country. So there are definitely parts of the state where the majority of people support this kind of ban. They are not sending their kids to school in mass, but other parents are furious about it. And they were really pushing for their districts to do more to protect their kids. We’ve seen people very, very passionate about this issue make their cases at school board meetings lately. For example, this Hillsborough County man, Bill Carl, he very much opposed the governor’s ban on mask mandates. He feared for his family’s safety, and he got really emotional at the emergency meeting that the school board had called to determine whether they were going to defy that ban.
BILL CARL: As the father of two Hillsborough County students and a beautiful-teacher wife. I beg you to institute a real mask mandate. But most of all, I beg you today– have courage!
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: And we do know that the County moved forward with the stricter mandate that only allowed for medical opt-outs. And that didn’t make everyone happy. This mom, Ellen Jackson, she did not want her kids to have to wear masks, and she was pretty mad about it.
ELLEN JACKSON: Why have you chosen to break the law? I voted for you, and you’re breaking the law, and muzzling my children.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: So she was angry, but we’ve seen people even angrier. We’ve seen fights break out at some of these meetings– even violence, police having to be called. So it has definitely been a crazy scene in some places. What I do think is telling though, is when you look at a school district like Hillsborough, they started the school year with a looser requirement. Parents could opt-out for any reason– they just had to fill out a form. And even then, only about 15% of students went that route.
So a vast majority of families were OK following the rules and sending their kids to school in mass whether they felt strongly about it or not. And Hillsborough leans Democratic, but even mostly conservative counties like Sarasota went on to mandate masks. So even a conservative-leaning district is cracking down.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, that really is interesting.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Do we know if cases are rising in Florida with the kids there?
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: We do. They are rising. And it just shows that the Delta variant really is changing the game when it comes to how this virus is affecting children. So kids under 12 made up the largest portion of new cases according to last week’s update from the state– they do these weekly reports. There was more than 26,000 kids testing positive, and that was up from 16,000 the week before. Regardless, a very high number. And pediatric hospitalizations have hit record highs this week. We’ve got more than 200 kids being treated for COVID.
And we’ve heard from hospitals that this is just not like anything they’ve seen with previous strains that even in past surges, a facility might be treating a couple kids at a time with COVID and now one hospital might have a dozen. And, you know, that seems small, and the death rate among kids is definitely extremely low still, but that doesn’t mean kids can’t get really sick or potentially suffer from long term damage. So it’s not something parents want for their kids.
IRA FLATOW: This is almost like watching politics or health as a sport, you know? Who’s winning, who’s losing. After all, it really is about the kids. And parents sometimes forget when they get all heated and excited about these things. Thank you, Stephanie Colombini, health care reporter for WUSF in Tampa, Florida.
STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: Thank you.
Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.