Orange County school board weighs COVID-19 safety options while working to comply with state rules

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — The state board of education has started sending letters to school districts it says are violating the governor’s order outlawing mask mandates.

So far, at least two districts received the letters, telling them they’re under investigation and that if they don’t make changes, the salaries of the superintendent and all members of its school board could be cut.

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Orange County Public Schools said it won’t be getting a letter because it’s in full compliance, because its mask requirement allows parents to opt out.

Counties that received the letter are requiring a doctor’s note to go without a mask.

On Tuesday night, Orange County school board members learned how closely they must obey that decision to stay in compliance with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order.

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Still, citing virus safety concerns, school board members wanted to know if there are options to go further with requirements.

“The life of my students and staff are worth more than my salary,” said Johanna Lopez, OCPS district 2.

That’s something at least four OCPS board members said they’re more than willing to accept. But the district’s legal counsel explained the governor’s executive order is as good as law, so even if the district wanted to challenge it, it has little legal standing.

READ: 4% of Orange County students submit notes opting out of face mask requirement

“I don’t think, if we were to challenge these positions, a court would say that we have standing to do so,” OCPS legal counsel John Palmerini said.

“If somebody took away my salary, this is a sacrifice we’d be honored to make; the problem is, it won’t accomplish anything,” OCPS board chair Teresa Jacobs said.

The withholding of salaries may be the only penalty mentioned, but Palmerni said it’s not the only one on the table.

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Under the law, he said the district’s state funding, which is nearly 51% of Orange County’s budget, could be pulled.

And if the district is seen as violators, the superintendent and any board members could be removed and replaced by the governor’s own selections.

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“The fact we are sitting here in this position and have no viable option to address this, it is the worst feeling i’ve had being in an elected office,” Jacobs said.

No decisions were made at Tuesday night’s meeting, though board members expressed the desire to share as much information as possible about infections with parents to keep the lines of communication open.

Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson, WFTV.com

Sarah Wilson joined WFTV Channel 9 in 2018 as a digital producer after working as an award-winning newspaper reporter for nearly a decade in various communities across Central Florida.