BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — The Florida Department of Education issued a letter to Brevard Public Schools, stressing that it must comply with the state order that parents be allowed to opt their children out of wearing a mask.
And the school board replied with a letter of its own, stating that it has complied with the state order.
What You Need To Know
- Brevard County school board stated it has complied with the order
- Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatens school board with salary restrictions
- Scroll down to read the reactions
- RELATED stories:
“Recent reports in the media indicate that the Brevard County School Board has taken action inconsistent with the emergency rule by limiting or conditioning the parental ability to opt out of a face covering or mask mandate,” wrote Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in a letter dated Sept. 3.
The letter was addressed to Brevard Public Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Mark Mullins and School Board Chairwoman Misty Belford.
The emergency rule that Corcoran was referencing is the one issued by the state’s health department on Aug. 6, which requires that any school district mask mandate policy must allow a parent to opt his or her student out of wearing a face covering.
However, like many other Florida school districts after Judge John Cooper of Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit ruled that the state cannot stop schools from issuing mask mandates, Brevard County school board approved a 30-day mandatory mask order and the only way a parent can opt-out of it is with a doctor’s note.
The Brevard County school district had until 10 a.m., Wednesday, to reverse its mandatory mask decision, wrote Corcoran.
“Should you fail to document full compliance with this rule …, I intend to recommend to the State Board of Education that the Department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for all members of the School Board, as well as other sanctions authorized by law, until the district comes into compliance,” threaten Corcoran.
However, in a phone interview with Spectrum News 13, Belford said Corcoran’s threat does not affect her.
“None of us do our jobs for the salary. I don’t feel that not having a salary for a month will impact my decision to keeping people safe,” she said.
Last month, Cooper granted a permanent injunction that prevented the state from “taking any action to effect a blanket ban on face mask mandates with no parent opt-out by local school boards,” the appeal resulted in an automatic stay of the judge's decision.
At issue is Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ability to ban mask mandates in schools that do not allow parents to opt-out, which he did via an executive order in July. Since then, numerous school districts have enacted mask mandates in schools despite threats from the state of withholding school board members' pay.
Despite Cooper's Aug. 27 decision that blanket bans violate the Parents' Bill of Rights, the Florida Department of Education has already started to withhold monthly school board salaries in Alachua and Broward counties, and announced investigations into multiple others, including Hillsborough and Orange County schools.
However, after the order was officially filed, it was then stayed by DeSantis' appeal.
Corcoran mentioned the stay in his letter to the school board and wrote, "This means the Department of Education may resume enforcement of the Florida Department of Health's emergency rule. In the event the stay is lifted, then enforcement action will be automatically tolled."
The parents of Florida students who filed the lawsuit have filed an emergency motion to vacate the automatic stay and allow the injunction to go into effect.
They argue that allowing the mask mandate ban to stand will cause irreparable damage to Florida students and school districts.
"If the automatic stay remains in place, Plaintiffs will continue to face the increased risk of the delta variant infection, local school boards will continue to face penalties from Defendants from their enforcement of the Executive Order, and local school boards will be faced with the choice of being subject to penalties issued by Defendants (for) protecting Plaintiffs, students, and school staff by having the ability to issue mandatory mask mandates without parental opt-out," the emergency motion said.
Brevard County school board replies to education commissioner
The Brevard Public Schools gave Spectrum News 13 a copy of the five-page letter it sent to Corcoran.
The letter — dated Wednesday, Sept. 8, and co-signed by Belford and Paul Gibbs, the school board’s general counsel — outlined how the mask mandate complies with the state’s order.
Citing the growing number of COVID cases within the school district for approving the mask mandate, the letter stated the school board is following the CDC’s recommendations and the Florida Department of Health’s acknowledgment that face coverings help to mitigate the slow spread of COVID-19.
Regarding the state’s emergency order that school districts must allow parents to opt-out their student from wearing a mask, the letter stated the Brevard County school board’s mask mandate does comply with the order.
The school board allows a parent to opt-out his or her student with a doctor’s note.
“The Rule does not state that the school must allow an opt-out for any and all — or no — reasons. The School Board’s emergency mandate does, in fact, allow for a parent or legal guardian to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask on the grounds delineated in the policy. Therefore, the School Board’s position is that the emergency mandate complies with DOH Emergency Rule 64DER21-12,” stated the letter.
Belford, who in the letter to Corcoran stated that the message is coming from her as chairwoman because it was a school board that voted for the mask mandate, stressed that having a mandate was important to lessen the COVID cases.
“For perspective, there were 4,498 reported new cases in the entire county between August 20 and August 26. Out of those, 1,410 came from our BPS schools. Thus, 31% of the total Brevard County cases in that time span came from within our schools, while our school population makes up just over 11% of the county population. Moreover, in three short weeks into the new school year, our Covid-19 rates already far surpass what we saw at the height of the pandemic in the 2020-2021 school year,” the letter stated.
Belford told Spectrum News 13 that Corcoran has not replied to the letter.
Corcoran has not yet responded to Spectrum News 13’s request for comment.
Belford said that it has been challenging to keep students safe and dealing with parents who have concerns about face masks.
“It seems to be a mixed bag,” she said, between the parents who are thankful for the mandate and those who feel it is against the law.
It is too early to say if there will be an extension of the school board’s mask mandate, “but we are seeing a downturn in cases in the school district and community,” she said, adding that the school board will re-evaluate its mandate in a Sept. 21 meeting.
Belford did say the school board is anticipating a surge of cases due to the Labor Day weekend.
Despite the dispute between the education commissioner and the school board, Belford said that she hopes everyone can come together to get the COVID numbers down and see a return to normalcy.
However, the debate maybe over after Cooper on Wednesday once again blocked DeSantis' ban on mask mandates in schools and lifted the stay that blocked his original ruling.