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First Coast

Duval School Board challenges state over mask mandate

Carol Basilio, Giovanna
Lynne Sladky/AP
Carol Basilio greets her daughter Giovanna, 4, outside of iPrep Academy in Miami.

The Duval County School Board has filed a legal challenge against the state over rules prohibiting mask restrictions for students.

The board on Wednesday joined Alachua, Broward, Leon, Miami-Dade and Leon counties in a challenge before the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings.

The districts are challenging the Department of Health's authority to issue rules about parental rights, according to the attorney representing the six districts, Jamie Cole.

"The challenge of the rule in the petition is primarily that the Department of Health has exceeded their rulemaking authority," Cole said. "Department of Health is really supposed to only deal with health issues, that this rule was designed to protect parental rights, not to control COVID."

The state Board of Education is meeting today to discuss whether 11 school districts are in compliance with a state Department of Health emergency rule issued Sept. 22. The rule says parents have the "sole discretion" to opt their kids out of mask mandates and quarantine requirements.

Duval and the five other districts say the rule isn't valid, so they don't need to follow it, according to the challenge.

A hearing on the challenge is likely within two weeks, according to Cole. He said he also expected Duval County to bring up this latest legal challenge during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday afternoon.

The state board will decide then whether to follow through on Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s threats of withholding school members' salaries — and state funds equal to federal grants — from 11 districts.

Some districts in Florida challenged a previous state rule regulating mask mandates, but their cases were thrown out when the Department of Health issued this latest rule.

The Duval County School Board hadn’t signed onto those legal challenges last month but voted 4-3 to challenge the state in response to the latest Department of Health rule. The school board members who voted in favor of the district challenging the new rule said the challenge is about local control, not just mask mandates.

“It’s not about the politics of this moment today,” school board chair Elizabeth Andersen said during an emergency meeting last week. “It’s much more about preserving our authority to educate, teach, learn and keep kids safe in Duval County Public Schools.”

The rule the district is challenging leaves it up to parents to decide whether their children wear masks and whether to quarantine them if they are exposed to COVID. Duval County Public Schools changed its quarantine policy after the rule passed and is no longer moving classes entirely online if there were more than two COVID cases in one classroom. But the district has stood by its mask mandate with a medical opt out only.

Duval County’s mask mandate is set to expire when the COVID transmission rate countywide is less than 50 cases per 100,000 people. That rate was 143 per 100,000, according to the latest available data.