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State House leaders back $200 million punishment against schools that required masks

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 2/9/2022 Brooke Baitinger, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

South Florida and Orlando school districts say they were trying to keep students and their families safe when they required students to wear masks on campus last year.

Legislators in Tallahassee say that in doing so, a dozen school districts broke Florida law and should face consequences. The Florida House of Representatives moved forward on Wednesday with a plan to punish the school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on face mask mandates for students last year.

The proposal, called Putting Parents First, would strip a total of $200 million from a dozen school districts that defied DeSantis. That includes Broward County, Palm Beach County, and Miami-Dade County school districts, as well as the Orange County school district in Orlando.

The money will come out of the salaries of about 1,600 non-teaching school employees that make over $100,000, and would be spread among the 55 school districts that didn’t impose mask mandates. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, recommended the proposal and suggested that the 12 districts had more money than they needed to pay “bureaucrats,” such as superintendents and administrators working in central offices, making more than double the starting salary of a school teacher.

House Democrats in the appropriations committee said they disagreed with the measure, calling it unfair and questioning its constitutionality.

They also questioned how Fine could say the move was not punitive, a point he maintained throughout the meeting.

Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, advocated on behalf of the parents who supported mask mandates.

“In a lot of cases, parents like me who didn’t want our students going to school where they would pick something up and bring it home,” he said, adding that his wife is recovering from cancer and other families surely have immunocompromised loved ones at home.

Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, said he thought it was a mistake to limit local school boards who are elected to make decisions for their communities.

“I believe there are a lot of intended and unintended consequences,” he said, adding that even if it might be good to “trim the fat” from school systems, that should be up to local school boards to do the best thing for their community in a thoughtful and deliberate way.

A tale of state versus local control


Video: South Florida school collects books for others (WPBF West Palm Beach)

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By the summer of 2021, students and teachers had endured a school year of remote learning and isolation, which hampered instruction and put some students further behind in school.

State leaders decided it was time for students and teachers to return to campus, even as the delta variant spiked daily. The governor issued an executive order against requiring masks, warning school districts that were considering mandates to let parents choose.

When students returned, many had to quarantine due to exposure in their classes, and some of the most populous school districts determined that masks were necessary to protect kids, their families, and teachers.

As the school year progressed, school board members and superintendents sat through lengthy meetings where anti-mask protesters flooded public comment with misinformation and even threatened them and their families.

The feud continued for months, as state leaders threatened to withhold funds and remove School Board members. Finally, some of the School Boards banded together to take a stand against the governor’s ban and challenged it in court, including Broward, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Alachua County school districts, among others.

Those districts questioned the state’s authority to pass such a rule that was contrary to federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before those issues were resolved in court, DeSantis’ executive order was cemented in state law during a special legislative session in November. DeSantis signed HB 1B that prohibited vaccine and mask requirements in schools.

There was no immediate effect at the time, since the school district had already decided to make masks optional for everyone since the county had met a benchmark of positivity rates below 3%.

A few weeks later, the omicron variant burned through South Florida. Though omicron’s effects appeared less severe than the previous variants, positivity rates spiked again. South Florida’s school districts again mandated masks, but only for adults on campus.

Districts react

The Broward County Council of PTAs said in a statement that the measure to remove money from districts would hurt children in schools.

“As child advocates, we are very disappointed in the provision to fine school districts for responding to local conditions and community input and taking appropriate action to protect our children,” the statement reads. “Any financial penalties assessed on the district ultimately affects the education and well-being of our children.”

Next, the provision will be up for a vote on the House floor. The council said it would work with the legislature to remove the provision during the conference process with the Senate.

Brooke Baitinger can be reached at: bbaitinger@sunsentinel.com, 954-422-0857 or on Twitter: @bybbaitinger

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