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Florida issues funding threat to school districts over mask mandate

Districts in Alachua, Leon and Broward counties are being investigated for "non-compliance" with a ban on mandates, the state's education commissioner said.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks in Tallahassee on March 17, 2020.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks in Tallahassee on March 17, 2020.Tori Lynn Schneider / Tallahassee Democrat via USA TODAY Network

Florida's education commissioner is investigating three school districts for not complying with Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order that gives parents the right to opt out of their child wearing face masks at schools.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent the letters this week to the superintendents and school board chairs of districts in Alachua, Leon and Broward counties. The letters were obtained by NBC News.

Corcoran wrote in letters to each district that he had "grave concern" over the face mask policy and said they were being investigated for "non-compliance."

The commissioner went on to say that public statements made by each district "indicate that you have no current intentions of complying with this order, which is intended to guarantee choice options to parents/guardians regarding their child while also protecting families and students federal and state protected rights to privacy."

Corcoran threatened to withhold money from their salaries and gave the districts a deadline to respond with a plan that would "remedy this glaring non-compliance."

"There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children," he wrote.

Alachua County Public Schools is requiring students to wear masks during the first two weeks of school. There is a opt-out option for parents who don't want their children to wear a mask, but they must submit a form signed by a doctor, according to the district's website.

The district responded to the commissioner and said its decision to require masks was due to a rise in Covid-19 cases.

"We are very concerned about the impact of the recent surge on our schools," Superintendent Carlee Simon and school board Chair Leanetta McNealy wrote in a letter obtained by NBC News.

"As we are sure you recognize, keeping schools open becomes more difficult when employees are sick or are in quarantine due to Covid exposure."

The leaders pointed out that it has seen a spike in cases amongst employees. Two custodians recently died after contracting the virus, they added. The three-page letter said that the district has an obligation to keep students and staff safe.

"Universally masking is the most effective strategy we currently have, besides vaccination, to meet this obligation," the letter stated.

In Leon County, masks are required for all students while indoors. Parents, however, can opt out if they submit a form signed by a doctor. Broward County has a similar mandate and requires masks for all students, staff and visitors.

Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna responded to Corcoran's threat during an agenda meeting on Monday, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

"You can't put a price tag on someone's life, including my salary," he said. “We want to make sure that children also have access to a high-quality education but they can’t if they’re sick and in the hospital."

Broward County said it is considering an opt-out option for parents, according to NBC Miami.

"The governor’s newest threats say more about what he values as an elected official than anything," officials said in a statement to CBS affiliate WFOR of Miami. "His Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has now threatened School Board members’ salaries for daring to protect our school children. I didn’t get into public service for the money. I serve to first and foremost keep our students and employees safe. The governor has no authority in this instance and this punitive and politically performative action is in line with his continued executive overreach."