Florida officials locked in power struggle over schools

ORLANDO, Fla. — The mask mandate debate playing out across Florida entered a new phase Tuesday, with the Florida Board of Education meeting to decide how to crack down on defiant districts that imposed mandates.

Under state law, a mandate is only permissible in schools if parents can opt-out. Two sets of officials, though, stuck to their guns. In both Alachua and Broward counties, parents have to get a doctor’s note or apply to transfer their kid to a different school district.

READ: A ‘chaotic’ school year expected as COVID-19 cases on the rise in Central Florida

State board of education members almost howled with rage during their discussion, not just at the resistance, but also at the Biden administration’s promise to make up for any funding cuts imposed on the districts, blunting the board’s power.

“They have to comply with the law whether they agree with it or not,” one board member insisted. “That’s what makes our country the greatest in the history of mankind.”

Alachua County’s superintendent said they were following the law, arguing that the changes to the HOPE scholarship, which allowed students to transfer out of the district if they were “harassed” by mask policies, counted as the parent opt-out.

Broward County presented similar arguments. In a legal dance, they added that the governor’s order was too vague and didn’t specify that the parent opt-out applied to students.

After more than an hour of state board members unsuccessfully attempting to play “gotcha” with the superintendents, they voted to look at their punishment options and dig up any other available dirt on the local board members of the two districts in case they eventually wanted to vote to unseat them.

READ: Orange County teacher’s union pushes for stronger mask mandate

Opposition figures mocked the decision.

“Instead of focusing on how to help, our governor and Commissioner of Education are spending time trying to figure out how to punish,” Agriculture Commissioner and 2022 gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried (D) said.

Leaders of school districts across Florida say they’re doing everything they can to keep the doors open in spite of the state’s attempt to limit their power.

Osceola County’s first COVID update included 143 students testing positive after the first week of school, along with dozens of staff members. Central Florida districts are averaging about a 1% quarantine rate among their student bodies.

READ: Central Florida counties prepare for COVID-19 vaccine booster shot rollout

The Osceola County School Board voted Tuesday to require elementary school, middle school, and K-8 students to wear masks for 30 days beginning Monday with parents allowed to opt out in writing.

Masks in Osceola County High Schools will continue to be optional with no need to opt out.

On the west coast, Hillsborough County leaders are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss masking options after reporting 8,400 students were quarantining.

Lawsuits are also in the works, with parents claiming the state’s guidelines violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and that Gov. DeSantis exceeded his authority.

READ: What’s required for a vaccine exemption, and why you can lose your job if you get one

Ultimately, courts will have to decide where the power over masking in schools lies. A ruling for the local districts would be a knock to state officials who routinely intervene when county, municipal and school leaders enact policies they personally disagree with.

A ruling for DeSantis, though, would be a major win for the governor whose path to the 2024 presidency will in part be built on a platform of successfully keeping the state as open as possible.