BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran demanded that Brevard Public Schools withdraw its classroom facemask mandate by Wednesday morning or the Florida Department of Education would withhold School Board member salaries.
Despite the threat, Brevard’s School Board refused to yield, telling Corcoran in a five-page letter Wednesday that it would stand by the board’s recent decision to require face coverings at Brevard Public Schools for 30 days because of the skyrocketing COVID-19 infections hitting both students and staff.
Corcoran send the board a letter last Friday saying that he was instituting an investigation into the district’s noncompliance with the mask ban rule issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis over the summer, and that the district had to reply before 10 a.m. Wednesday with written documentation of how it is complying with the policy or face loss of salaries.
“As of right now, the state cannot take action against the board as outlined in Richard Corcoran’s letter,” School Board Chair Misty Belford said. “It’s a legal dance, there’s going to be a lot of back and forth, but right now the stay has been lifted.”
An executive order by DeSantis forbade school districts from imposing mask mandates on students unless parents could opt out. After a Florida judge overturned the order, Brevard joined several Florida counties in defiance of the governor, requiring students to wear masks for the next 30 days unless their parents obtained a medical exemption. The board voted 3-2 in favor of the policy at an Aug. 30 emergency meeting.
Corcoran said in his letter that an automatic stay on the judges ruling allowed the Department of Education to resume enforcement of its rule against mask mandates.
“Parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education and care of their minor children,” Corcoran wrote. “The Department of Education will protect that right.”
But Corcoran’s and DeSantis’ efforts to bring rebel school districts to heel hit another legal hurdle Wednesday, when a Florida judge ruled that the stay was no longer valid and that governor’s ban on mask mandates in schools would not remain in effect during the ongoing legal battle.
Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper approved a request by parents to allow mask mandates to continue in public schools, throwing out the emergency stay. Cooper said it was an unusual action, but it was warranted because allowing the state to enforce its ban on mask mandates could cause health risks in schools.
Even before the ruling came out, Brevard showed no intention on bending in the face of the Department of Education’s salary threats.
In a five-page letter, School Board Chair Misty Belfordand General Counsel Paul Gibbs told Corcoran that the mask mandate was necessary to fulfill the district’s responsibilities under Florida statutes and the Florida Constitution, as well as to allow schools to continue to operate in-person during the pandemic with as little interruption to students’ learning as possible.
“Given the bleak landscape of skyrocketing cases outlined above, the Board feels a moral and legal obligation to deploy any available mitigation measure that has potential to slow the effect of the deadly Covid-19 virus on our staff and students and reduce overall quarantines to maintain continuity of education,” the letter stated.
Community groups for and against the mask mandate are still likely to have a heavy presence at the meeting. Fliers circulated on Facebook Monday with details of a planned mask-burning protest, and members of pro-mask group Families for Safe Schools discussed talking points for the public comment section of the meeting. The Aug. 30 meeting attracted about 140 speakers.
Florida has already withheld school board member salaries in Alachua and Broward counties. Those two were the first in the state to instate mask mandates this year.
On Aug. 27 Judge John Cooper ruled in favor of parents who sued DeSantis, finding that the governor did not have the legal authority to forbid mandates. He said mask mandates are “reasonable and consistent with the best scientific and medical opinion in this country.”
The parents argued that DeSantis’s executive order violated a constitutional requirement that the state must provide safe schools to children, while DeSantis said parents must have the right to decide whether their children should wear them.
As of Tuesday, BPS had announced over 4,000 COVID-19 cases among students and staff and over 21,000 quarantines since Aug. 2.
Bailey Gallion is the education reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallion at 321-242-3786 or email@example.com.