Palm Beach and Miami-Dade schools challenge mask rules in letters to state

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As South Florida school districts receive conflicting legal direction, they are standing firm that they have the right to impose mask mandates to help combat COVID-19.

Palm Beach and Miami-Dade County school districts responded to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran on Wednesday after he demanded they explain how they plan to comply with a rule from the state Department of Health saying parents must be able to opt out of mask rules. The rule came at the direction of an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch opponent of mask mandates.

The two districts, like Broward last month, say they believe they are already in compliance.

“It is clear that the School Board has a compelling state interest in controlling a deadly communicable disease, like COVID-19,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wrote.“ Accordingly, the School Board relied on the advice of medical and public health experts and exercised its duty to protect the lives and health of students and employees through the least restrictive means possible.”

Palm Beach Superintendent Mike Burke said COVID-19 cases have continued to soar, with 3,470 reported involving students and staff in the first three weeks, compared with 3,800 reported cases for all of last school year.

“It cannot be disputed that providing a safe learning environment for all students is a compelling interest for the School Board and the State of Florida as a whole,” Burke wrote. “A face-covering policy was necessary in response to the dramatically and rapidly worsening state of the spread of COVID-19 as a result of the Delta variant.”

The letters are the latest in a monthlong battle between school districts and state leaders over mask mandates. The dispute has attracted national attention as well as offers of financial support to school districts from the Biden administration.

Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper sided with the districts last week, saying the state’s ban on mask mandates was unconstitutional. But he’s yet to release his written order, and Corcoran is still enforcing the mask rules. Corcoran sent the Broward school district a notice Monday that he was withholding funding equivalent to the salaries of the eight School Board members who supported the mask mandate.

Broward school officials say they are seeking legal guidance on how to challenge Corcoran. On Wednesday, the Palm Beach County School Board approved $50,000 to hire a high-powered law firm to advise them on mask mandates and defend them in court, should it come to that.

The $50,000 will allow the School Board to retain the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm, which has three South Florida offices, to provide advice on the district’s mask policy and other COVID-related safety measures. The firm’s chairman and managing partner is David Boies has worked on such high-profile cases as Bush v. Gore in 2000 and the same Supreme Court challenge that legalized same-sex marriage.

Corcoran and DeSantis’ stance was supported Wednesday by Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody, who released an opinion advising the Suwannee County School District to follow the state rules related to parental opt outs for masks.

The School Board had told Moody masks were optional in their district but “there has been some dissent,” and they were confused about the actions taken by at least 11 school districts to require masks.

“Pursuant to its authority to legislate regarding public schools — especially school safety — the Florida Legislature has authorized the Department of Health to issue rules governing ‘the control of preventable communicable diseases’ in schools,” Moody wrote.

She said under Florida law, public officials are obligated to obey this “until the judiciary passes on its constitutionality,” which she said hasn’t happened.

Jared Ochs, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said Monday night that “our Department plans on continuing to follow the rule of law until such time as the Court issues its ruling, and subsequent to that ruling, we plan on immediately appealing this decision … from which we will seek to stay the ruling,”

State officials say they are authorized by the Parents’ Bill of Rights, a law passed by the Legislature this year that gives parents more say on their children’s health decisions.

Burke said in his letter the district is following the law.

“There has been no determination that has concluded a face-covering requirement for students is unconstitutional. Nothing in the Parents’ Bill of Rights prohibits a face-covering requirement,” Burke wrote.

Burke said the Parents’ Bill of Rights “preserves the School Board’s power to take action where it is “reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”

He said the face mask requirement meets those guidelines.

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