Florida education officials determined Tuesday that the Broward and Alachua county school districts violated state law by requiring students without medical exemptions to wear masks and voted unanimously to consider penalties.

Penalties that could be imposed on the districts by the Florida Board of Education, appointed by the governor, would be the first since Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) threatened to withhold money from districts that require face coverings, saying parents should decide whether their children wear masks at school. Advancing the fight between DeSantis and school districts, the board decided that the school officials should be investigated and possibly punished, after Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran argued that the districts were not complying with the law.

Corcoran also pushed back against the Biden administration, which wrote to him and DeSantis last week saying federal funds could be available to school administrators who faced repercussions from the state.

“My recommendation is every school superintendent have to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran said.

In an emergency online meeting, board members questioned the district’s superintendents, at times combatively. Parents, teachers and officials, including state Sen. Gary Farmer (D) and Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried, called during the public comment period, expressing a range of heated opinions from disdain for mask mandates to support for the counties facing penalties.

“Shame on all of you,” Fried told the board. “How embarrassing that you may be more afraid of the governor than you are for the lives of our children and teachers who are already getting sick and dying in record numbers.”

Most Americans support mandating masks in schools, and there is widespread opposition across party lines to states withholding funds from school districts that require masks, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll.

Some parents worry Florida schools aren't doing enough to protect their kids from the coronavirus as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) doubles down on his mask mandate ban. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

School superintendents have pleaded with DeSantis to allow them to adopt mask requirements that follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises that masks be worn indoors at schools, especially while children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the authorized coronavirus vaccines.

Carlee Simon, superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, told the board that the district’s mask mandate does not infringe on the state’s requirements because parents could still opt out by using Florida’s Hope Scholarship voucher program to transfer their children to private schools. But board member Ben Gibson said the scholarship was meant to be used for students experiencing harassment related to coronavirus safety protocols. He added that the process to receive the state scholarship is “burdensome.”

Broward County interim schools superintendent Vickie Cartwright said the county had five available pediatric ICU beds amid the rampant spread of the delta variant.

Neither superintendent immediately responded to requests for comment after the meeting.

Debate over the need for mask mandates comes as some school districts that have recently restarted classes have reported rising case numbers.

Hillsborough County Public Schools, whose more than 220,00 students make it one of the largest districts in the state, has 8,400 students and 307 staff members either in isolation because of a positive test or in quarantine after coming into close contact with someone who tested positive.

In Alachua County, 162 students and 58 staff members have tested positive in the past 14 days, after school resumed last week. Classes have not yet started in Broward County, which has reported 315 cases among employees and 13 cases among students.

The board’s penalties for school officials in those counties could range from withholding funding to removing school officials, an idea floated by the board’s chairman, Tom Grady. He said the board had to decide whether the counties violated state law, distancing himself from the politicization of face coverings.

“The issue isn’t whether or not mandates or masks are good or bad,” Grady said.

But as board members grilled the superintendents, the questioning strayed from potential violations to unrelated topics.

At one point, Grady questioned how much it cost Simon to provide interviews to news outlets. He also inquired about how much Cartwright’s school district paid its public relations staff.

The contentious inquiry comes as officials fear more cases among children returning to class with record-breaking infection numbers in the state, where the seven-day average for new cases reached a high Tuesday of 24,716.

On Saturday, Simon told The Washington Post that after a week into the school year, she had heard of students coming to class after being exposed to the coronavirus at home.

“We know we have people who have positivity rates at home, and we have families who are still choosing to bring their children to school,” she said. “When they do that, they’re essentially bringing covid into our buildings, and that’s putting everyone at risk.”

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