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Florida defies judge, punishes 2 school districts for masks

Students sit in an algebra class at Barbara Goleman High School in Miami Lakes, Fla. On August 23. | Marta Lavandier / AP Photo

TALLAHASSEE – The Florida Department of Education defied a recent ruling by a state judge on Monday and imposed its first sanctions on school board members who rejected orders from the DeSantis administration on warrants for local masks.

State officials withheld monthly salaries from Alachua and Broward County board members who supported mask demands, marking a major turning point in the weeks-long fight for face coverings in schools.

“We will fight to protect the rights of parents to make health care decisions for their children,” Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a statement. “What is unacceptable is the politicians who raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to respect the Constitution but are not doing so.”

The fines come even as a circuit court judge ruled on Friday that the DeSantis administration did not have the power to punish schools for implementing mask warrants. DeSantis had vowed to appeal the decision, but the sanctions imposed on Monday by the education department appear to be a repudiation of the judge’s decision. The judge in that case, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper, ruled on the bench on Friday and a formal order has yet to be issued by the court.

The decision by the State Department of Education is the latest development in the week-long fight to hide Florida students amid the surge in coronavirus cases. Already, 11 counties have rejected the governor’s rules preventing schools from imposing masks, including school districts in three Republican-leaning counties.

The battle has also affected the Biden administration, which has pledged to financially support local school boards that are being punished, sparking a clash between Washington and the GOP governor.

Even before the state announced it was cutting wages, the Republican-leaning Brevard County approved a mask mandate for students on Monday after it canceled the idea just two weeks ago.

Alachua and Broward were the first two school boards to adopt mask mandates in the face of an executive decree and emergency rules from the DeSantis administration that sought to block local Covid-19 measures. In Broward County, the monthly salary for a school board member is approximately $ 3,897.

The DeSantis administration argues that the “Parents Bill of Rights” measure, approved by the GOP-dominated Florida legislature and enacted earlier this year, prohibits schools from imposing masks.