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Florida Ed Commissioner Hasn’t Yet Withheld Funds From Duval

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News Service of Florida
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Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran

Despite his threat to withhold about $22,000 a month from Duval County Public Schools, Florida’s Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has not yet withheld any state funds from the district in response to its student mask mandate.

It’s been two weeks since Duval Schools Superintendent Diana Greene told the commissioner the district would uphold its emergency mask mandate. The mandate took effect Sept. 7, but the commissioner has not issued a public response or followed through on his intention to “recommend the State Board of Education withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries of all the members of the School Board.”

Thus far, the Department of Education has withheld funds in Alachua and Broward counties, which were the first districts to defy state rules against mask mandates. At least 10 other districts have also enacted mask mandates since then.

The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but the commissioner’s unfulfilled threats come against the backdrop of two ongoing legal battles.

One lawsuit, filed by Alachua, Broward and Orange County school boards against the Florida Department of Health, argues that a medical opt-out is sufficient to meet the requirements of the DOH rule about mask mandates.

“The School Boards’ Face Coverings Policy comply with the requirements of the Emergency Rule since those policies include circumstances under which a parent or legal guardian can opt-out,” the lawsuit reads.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has said parents must be able to opt out for any reason for districts to be in compliance with the emergency rule. A hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for September 24.

The judge's ruling would apply to Duval County’s mask mandate, which has a medical opt-out option. Less than 1% of students filed a medical opt-out form, according to the district.

A separate legal battle brought by a group of parents alleges that the Department of Education, Gov. DeSantis and Commissioner Corcoran’s blocking districts from passing mask mandates is unconstitutional because it interferes with districts’ duty to protect students’ health and safety.

A circuit judge ruled in the parents’ favor in early September and then briefly barred the governor from blocking district mask mandates while the state appeals. On Friday, an appeals court ruled in the governor’s favor, allowing him to continue to block the mandates while the case against him continues.

In St Johns County, which doesn’t have a mask mandate, some parents say they’re frustrated by the legal seesaw. Elementary school parent Katrina Ressa said the previous ruling against DeSantis had made her optimistic for a student mask mandate in St. Johns.

“It did give us some hope. He talked about how parents still have rights, but it feels like only certain parents' rights are counting right now and not all of our parents’ rights are counting,” Ressa said. “Like, our right to have our children not get sick, is it being honored?”

Ressa is among a group of parents pushing the district to follow Duval County’s lead and pass a mask mandate. She said she’s hoping for a mask mandate because her 77-year-old mother lives with the family. 

“The idea is to try and keep my mother as safe as possible,” Ressa said. “She's vaccinated, my husband and I are vaccinated, but of course, the little ones can't be vaccinated yet.”

The St. Johns County superintendent has said he will follow the governor’s orders. The school board meets Tuesday afternoon, but masks are not on the agenda.

Duval Schools’ mask mandate is in effect for 90 days or until the COVID testing positivity rate is less than 8% countywide. That rate was 12.7% in the most recently available data.

Contact Claire Heddles at cheddles@wjct.org, (904) 250 - 0926, or on Twitter at @claireheddles.