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Battle over masks intensifies, hearing set in suit challenging order, storm closes districts, and more

Mask fight escalating: An emergency meeting of the state Board of Education has been called for Tuesday to decide what it plans to do about the two school districts that have refused to comply with the board’s rule that mask mandates can be imposed only if parents are given the right to opt-out for any reason. Both the Broward and Alachua districts have made masks mandatory and are requiring notes from health professionals before allowing students to opt-out. Both districts have been told they could lose state funding equal to the amount they are paying their superintendents and school board members. That threat prompted the Biden administration to offer support for the districts’ mask mandates and suggest federal relief funds could be used to replace any money withheld by the state. That idea was criticized by representatives of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office, who said doing so would “prioritize the salaries of politicians over students, parents and teachers.” News Service of Florida. Orlando Sentinel. Politico Florida. Florida Politics. Miami Herald. Gainesville Sun. Education Week. Associated Press.

Mask lawsuit hearing set: A Leon County circuit court judge gave the DeSantis administration until today to submit its motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the governor’s executive order that was intended to prohibit school districts from imposing face mask mandates on students. Once the motion is filed, the group of parents who brought the lawsuit will have until Tuesday to respond. Judge John Cooper said he will rule Thursday. If he denies the state’s motion to dismiss, the trial begins Monday, Aug. 23. USA Today Florida Network. Florida Phoenix. WFSU. WLRN.

School closures today: At least 14 northwest Florida school districts are closed today because of the possibility of severe weather from Tropical Storm Fred, which is expected to make landfall later in the day. Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Leon, Liberty, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla, Walton and Washington school districts all announced the closings over the weekend. Officials in each district will decide later today whether schools will reopen Tuesday. Also closed are Chipola College, Gulf Coast State College, Northwest Florida State College, Florida A&M University and Tallahassee Community College. Florida Department of Education. Tallahassee Democrat. WCTV. Northwest Florida Daily News. WFSU. WEAR. WJHG. Santa Rosa County School District. Port St. Joe Star.

Around the state: Seven employees and a student from four state school districts died recently of complications from the coronavirus, several school districts reported hundreds of positive coronavirus tests and quarantines among students and staff, a Polk school district proposal to raise health care costs for employees isn’t well-received by school board members, a Charlotte County charter school is closing for 10 days because of staffing shortages caused by the virus, and University of Florida officials confirm that classes will be in person as planned when the fall semester begins after a report earlier that they were considering moving some courses online to start the school year. Here are details about those stories and other from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: The three district employees whose deaths were reported last week of complications from the coronavirus were identified Friday. They were: Janice Wright, a special education teacher at Pinewood Elementary School in North Lauderdale who was 48 and had told a friend she had plans to get vaccinated but had not done so; teacher Katina Jones, 49, and teacher assistant Yolanda Hudson Williams, 49, who both worked at Dillard Elementary. WPLG.

Hillsborough, Tampa Bay area: Nearly 1,000 positive tests for the coronavirus were reported during the first week of school in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties. Hillsborough had 475, compared to 41 after the first four days of school in 2020. Pinellas reported 203 after the first two days after recording just 16 last year. Pasco had 29 cases in the first two weeks of school last year but 191 in its first four days of classes, and Hernando reported 92 cases. Tampa Bay Times. Florida Politics. St. Pete Catalyst. Stephanie Meyer, a middle school history teacher at Keswick Christian, has announced she is a candidate for the District 6 seat on the Pinellas school board currently held by Bill Dudley. Meyer lost to Laura Hine in the 2020 race for the countywide District 1 seat. Florida Politics.

Orange: The school district is offering COVID testing today through Friday to students, their parents and district employees at various elementary schools. Testing will continue Saturday and Sunday, and be open to the community. WOFL.

Palm Beach: More than 1,000 students were removed from schools last week and placed under quarantine after 134 cases of the coronavirus were confirmed among students and employees, according to the district. Students made up 108 of the positive cases. District officials also said that 8,518 of the 179,000 or so district students have opted-out of wearing face masks. Sun Sentinel. WPTV. Ulysses Smith, the first black principal at Suncoast High School and Conniston Junior High and a longtime educator in the district, has died from acute myeloid leukemia. He was 80. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: Three district employees died of complications from the coronavirus last week: Nicole Hollis, 39, a 3rd-grade teacher at River City Science Academy charter school in Jacksonville; Bobby Rivers, an assistant principal at Arlington Middle School; and Kevin Hubbard, 51, a district locksmith who was diagnosed July 31. Hubbard was vaccinated, and Hollis’ and Rivers’ status was not known. School officials also reported 82 positive coronavirus tests during the first four days of school, with 66 of them students. Florida Times-Union. WJXT. WJAX. A 12-year-old student at Landon College Preparatory and Leadership Development School in Jacksonville asked her principal last week if students could eat outside so they can feel safer. School officials told her they would say yes but have no outdoor seating. So the student, Lila Hartley, has started a GoFundMe page to raise the money to buy lunch tables. Florida Times-Union.

Polk: A proposal to raise health care premiums for district employees has gotten a cool reception from school board members. Linda King, the district’s director of risk management, wants employees to pay $25 for their health plan, raise premiums for spouses, children and retirees, and raise deductibles by at least $100 for in-network care and up to $2,700 for out-of-pocket expenses. Several school board members said not charging employees for insurance is a perk of the job and important to attracting new workers. “I don’t know how we’re going to ask our employees to donate more on their already meager salary. … I feel like we’re balancing it on the backs of our employees,” said board member Sarah Fortney. No decision on the proposal is expected soon. Lakeland Ledger. The school district will partner with the health department to stage a COVID-19 vaccine clinic Tuesday from 3-7 p.m. at Bryant Stadium in Lakeland. No appointments are necessary. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: Lou Quattrucci, a teacher at Tanglewood Elementary School in Fort Myers and an educator in the district for nearly 40 years, died Friday of complications from the coronavirus. His mother said he had been vaccinated, but his immune system had been weakened after a battle with cancer. WBBH. A shortage of school bus drivers got worse last week when 20 quit, according to district officials. Lee was already short by 100 drivers. “Some of the factors for our bus drivers, for them personally were concerned about students not wearing masks. There’s a lot of stress on them, picking up extra routes and filling in extra time to make sure that we are picking up everybody,” said district spokesman Robert Spicker. “And unfortunately, they often take the brunt of a parent’s frustration when the doors open and that just drives them away.” Fort Myers News-Press. WINK.

Brevard: More than 700 cases of the coronavirus have been reported in Brevard schools since Aug. 1, and more than 1,500 students and staff have been placed under quarantine. District officials said of the 715 cases, 556 have been of students and 159 of employees. The 1,543 quarantines are half students, half staff. The first day of school was Tuesday. Florida Today.

Manatee, Sarasota: Manatee school board members meet this morning to consider a board member’s proposal to enact a short-term mask requirement for students. Board chair Charlie Kennedy said the mandate would include an opt-out for students. If the proposal is approved, it would be in effect until Aug. 25. Bradenton Herald. WWSB. Since classes began Tuesday, Manatee school officials have reported 177 cases of the coronavirus among students and staff and Sarasota schools have reported 218. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Escambia: Seventy-seven students and employees have tested positive for the coronavirus: 38 students and 39 workers. The first day of school was Wednesday. WEAR.

Leon: Seventeen schools reported 29 positive cases of the coronavirus last week, and more than 500 students were in quarantine. Twenty-six of the cases were among students. Classes resumed Wednesday. Tallahassee Democrat.

Okaloosa: Thirty-seven students and seven district employees tested positive for COVID-19 last week, according to district officials. The first day of school was Tuesday. WEAR.

Santa Rosa: Eighty-two district students tested positive for the coronavirus last week. Schools opened Tuesday. WEAR.

Indian River: A 16-year-old Vero Beach High School student was arrested after an altercation with a school administrator last week. Deputies said the boy was escorted off campus after the incident, then returned but fled and was detained at a nearby apartment. He’s been charged with trespassing, disruption of school and resisting arrest without violence. WPTV. WPEC.

Charlotte: The Babcock Neighborhood School in Punta Gorda is closing for 10 days because of a “significant staffing shortage” that school officials attribute to coronavirus infections and quarantines. The K-8 charter school will be deep-cleaned and reopened Aug. 26. Charlotte Sun. WFTX. WBBH.

Columbia: A Columbia High School senior-to-be has died of complications from the coronavirus. Jo’Keria Graham, 17, passed away just days before she was to start her final year. She was not vaccinated, but her brother Jaylen Brown said she wore a mask and took other precautions. WCJB. WJXT.

Colleges and universities: University of Florida officials confirmed Friday that classes will be in person as planned when the fall semester begins. Earlier in the day, an official said the university was considering moving some courses online to start the school year. Gainesville Sun. Some parents are questioning UF’s policy to have students with COVID-19 who live in a dorm isolate and quarantine off-campus. Gainesville Sun. Students are “expected” to wear masks indoors and in large gatherings this fall, interim University of South Florida president Rhea Law said Friday. Tampa Bay Times. Richard McCullough takes over as president of Florida State University today, replacing the retiring John Thrasher. Associated Press. A bill that would allow people with concealed-weapons permits to carry guns on campuses has been filed for the 2022 legislative session. The bill failed to get through the last session. News Service of Florida. The family of a University of Florida graduate student who killed himself in June 2019 has filed a legal claim against the school for not intervening in the alleged mistreatment of the student by a professor. WUFT.

Opinions on schools: It is time for the Florida Board of Education, the governor, and leaders throughout the nation to put their faith and their trust in the people whom local communities have entrusted with their children’s education and safety, and let them do their jobs. Raymond Pierce, Forbes. Parents get to make a “choice” whether their children get a special license to spread the coronavirus to their classmates, teachers and school personnel? What’s next? Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post. Why are charter schools proliferating in Duval County? It’s because charters are responding to public demand: Families want them for their children. Rev. Mark L. Griffith, Florida Times-Union. The problem with confusing messages on masks – from parents, school officials and, in Florida, the governor’s office – is that young people don’t want to stand out as different. If most of their classmates are maskless, their desire to be part of the crowd can override any realization of the dangers. Kathy Silverberg, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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BY NextSteps staff