Broward schools stick by mask mandate and accuse Florida of breaking the law

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Broward County’s School Board officially told the state Tuesday that it won’t back down on its mask mandate in schools because it has a responsibility to keep children safe.

The State Board of Education’s demand that the school district must stand down or face penalties is against the law and infringes on the School Board’s legal authority to run the district, the School Board argued.

The School Board also argued that parents don’t have an unlimited right to send their kids to school without a mask, because it would infringe on the rights of other parents who want their children to be safe.

The state Board of Education has barred schools from requiring students to wear masks. Parents should make that decision, and they must have the option of opting out, the state says.

The state had given Broward schools until Tuesday to lift their mandate.

The school districts say mask mandates are needed to protect student safety, given the skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 cases, the lack of a vaccine for children under 12 and current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The School Board disputes that a parent or legal guardian has a fundamental and unlimited right to insist that his or her minor child not be required to wear a face covering during a pandemic involving a highly contagious virus,” the School Board wrote in its response to the state.

“If such a fundamental and unlimited right did exist, it would necessarily conflict with the right of a parent or legal guardian of a minor child — especially an immunocompromised child — to attend school in an environment made safer by a requirement that those individuals the child will come in contact with will wear a face-covering, thereby taking a measure that the Department of Health has acknowledged mitigates against the spread of that virus.”

It is “indisputable” that the School Board has a compelling interest in providing a safe environment for all its students during a pandemic, including those especially vulnerable to harm caused by COVID-19, the School Board wrote. To allow students to attend school unmasked would jeopardize the safety of other students, especially those with underlying conditions, the board argued.

“We believe that the district is in compliance. We don’t believe that we have done anything inappropriate as it relates to the executive order and the rule of the Department of Education,” School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood said during a briefing Tuesday as anti-mask protesters chanted in the background. “So we have also instructed our lawyer, our legal counsel and superintendent to seek legal avenues that we can challenge those things that we believe are unlawful and out of line.”

Interim Superintendent Vickie L. Cartwright summarized the School Board’s reply to the State Board of Education.

“What we have stated to them is that we do believe that it is an overreach of their authority, that we are legally compliant,” she said. “And we have respectfully requested that they rescind the order that has been placed upon Broward County Schools.”

The Biden administration has indicated that it would provide financial support to districts whose funds get cut over the mask rules, including allowing the use of federal stimulus dollars.

Whether districts could take money from their reserves to make up for lost pay is unclear, but several School Board members say they plan to forgo the money.

Civil rights groups are heading to court to challenge the policy on mask mandates. A petition filed Friday in the 4th District Court of Appeal seeks a court order to invalidate the mask-related portions of the health department’s rule. It was filed on behalf of the NAACP and families in Palm Beach County with medically vulnerable members.

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