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Face mask standoff adds Sarasota and Leon against state, virus closes schools and classes, and more

Face mask showdown: No one is blinking in the showdown over face mask mandates for students in Florida schools. On Friday, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran gave the Broward and Alachua school districts 48 hours to rescind their face mask policies, which require medical excuses to opt-out, or the state would start withholding an amount equal to the monthly salaries of school board members who voted for the mandates or superintendents who ordered them. “We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” Corcoran said. “This is simply unacceptable behavior.” The deadline came and went Sunday with board members in those districts saying they’re sticking to their decisions. Since the stricter policies began in Broward and Alachua, school districts in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Leon have approved similar policies. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. Sun Sentinel. Gainesville Sun. Palm Beach Post. Florida Phoenix. State legislators who control education funding are polarized on the issue along party lines: Republicans support the state’s actions, and Democrats support the school boards. Miami Herald. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Sunday that states can’t withhold federal funds for districts that impose face mask mandates. Politico.

Sarasota, Leon sign on: Both Sarasota and Leon school districts approved face mask mandates over the weekend. In Leon County, Superintendent Rocky Hanna announced Sunday that masks would be mandatory for all K-8 students, with opt-outs permitted only for students with a doctor’s note. “The reason for this is because these children are not eligible to become vaccinated and remain the most vulnerable in our community,” he said. Saturday, the Sarasota County School Board voted 3-2 to require masks for all students, with opt-outs only for medical reasons. It goes into effect immediately and lasts 90 days. Jane Goodwin, who voted with the majority, said, “It goes to court for review. That review is taking place right now … in Tallahassee on Monday. In the meantime, I have to do what I think is right for our students and staff.” Bridget Ziegler voted against the mandate. “It may be under litigation right now but will certainly be something we have to pay a serious price for,” she said. “I don’t believe we need to be spending money in courtrooms; I think it needs to be in classrooms.” Gov. Ron DeSantis called the Sarasota board’s decision “illegal.” Tallahassee Democrat. WTXL. WCTV. Associated Press. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WWSB. Charlotte Sun. Politico Florida. Florida Phoenix.

COVID closing schools: Schools or classrooms in at least seven counties have been closed this month because of COVID outbreaks, according to the Florida Education Association. Brevard, Charlotte, Duval, Hernando, Bay, Glades and Lee school districts have all reported school or classrooms closings. The teachers union also reported that 19 school employees, including eight teachers and an assistant principal, have died of complications from the coronavirus since Aug. 1. Both the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and the Florida School Boards Association have said they need help fighting the surge. “Some districts are indicating that their local health departments are currently unable to keep up with the demand for testing and contact tracing necessary to return students to school in the most timely manner possible,” the FDASS said in a statement. Florida Phoenix. Florida Today. WTLV. The state reported 150,118 coronavirus cases and 1,486 deaths last week. One in four of the infections were of people under the age of 19, and 29 of the deaths were people under the age of 29. There were also 20,331 new cases reported last week in children under the age of 12, compared to 16,754 the previous week. Sun Sentinel. WKMG. USA Today. Tampa Bay Times.

Another mask challenge: Two Palm Beach County families and Florida’s chapter of the NAACP are launching a court challenge to the state health department’s rule allowing students to opt-out of wearing face masks in schools. The petition was filed with the 4th District Court of Appeal on behalf of two medically vulnerable students who said the rule forces them to remain at home. Palm Beach’s school district is defying the state’s rule, but the lawsuit said that is “immaterial. Petitioners are still adversely affected because they are at serious risk of soon being forced to attend a partially unmasked school or be exposed to family members who do if the state is successful in its unrelenting efforts to compel districts to comply. Petitioners should not have to wait until they are once again at direct risk of death to challenge the rule that threatens to place them there again.” News Service of Florida. Today is the first day in the trial challenging the constitutionality of the state’s executive order on masks. A group of parents from around the state filed the suit, which is being heard in the Tallahassee court of Circuit Judge John Cooper. The hearing is expected to last through Wednesday, and a ruling could be issued this week. WKMG. Spectrum News 13.

Around the state: A school resource officer has died of complications from the coronavirus in St. Johns County, the number of COVID cases in Tampa Bay area schools last week soared to 3,200 against 200 at the same time last fall, other districts around the state are also reporting escalating coronavirus cases and quarantines, Sarasota school officials are reporting staff shortages in multiple areas of district operations, Duval’s school board meets in an emergency session today to reconsider that district’s face mask policy, and the largest district in the state, Miami-Dade, becomes the last to reopen to students when it welcomes students today. Here are details about those stories and other from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: The largest school district in the state opens its doors today to students, many of whom will be stepping into a classroom for the first time in 17 months. Strict safety protocols are in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, including mandatory mask-wearing, and teachers will be balancing the need to make up for lost learning and attend to the mental health of students. Miami-Dade is the last district in the state to reopen. Miami Herald. WSVN. WTVJ.

Broward, south Florida: The widespread hope for a more “normal” school year has been shattered by the surge in coronavirus cases that are causing huge numbers of students out of schools. Some south Florida districts are being asked to return to simultaneous teaching of children in class and quarantined students who are online, a practice that they say is ineffective. Sun Sentinel.

Orange, central Florida: More than 4,000 central Florida students were placed under quarantine last week because they were exposed to someone with the coronavirus, according to district officials. About half of them were from Lake County, which is the region’s smallest public school system. Orange County schools reported 1,067 students testing positive. Last year at this time the number was fewer than 40. Osceola reported 120 positive tests, Lake 286 and Seminole 470. Orlando Sentinel.

Duval: School board members meet today for an emergency meeting to consider coronavirus safety measures. The meeting was initiated by board member Darryl Willie, who said it was needed to address “an issue that is clearly an emergency, as every day, our students and employees are becoming sick with a life-threatening virus.” Willie wants to get rid of the provision allowing parents to decide if their children have to wear face masks. Willie said 10 days into the school year, 589 COVID cases have been reported in schools. Last year at this time it was 20. Florida Times-Union. WTLV. WJAX. WJXT. More than 8,000 district students have opted-out of wearing masks, but school officials said they won’t allow masked students to move away from unmasked ones in classrooms. “The presence or absence of a face covering should not be the basis for reorganizing a seating chart,” said district spokeswoman Laureen Ricks. “This is consistent with the language issued by the state.” Florida Times-Union. The district said it can’t keep up with contact tracing of infected students. Instead, it will send letters to parents if there’s a positive case in a classroom and shift classes to online learning if there are more than two cases confirmed in a seven-day period. WJXT. WTLV.

Palm Beach: One of every 50 district students is under a quarantine order, according to district officials. The number of positive coronavirus cases is nearly 1,400, the district’s COVID dashboard indicated Sunday: 1,202 students and 188 employees. Palm Beach Post. The Diocese of Palm Beach has notified parents that students will be required to wear masks when they go to school today. Only students with a medical exemption can opt-out. WPTV. School officials said Friday that the district is not opting-in to receive school grades from the state. The one exception is Indian Pines Elementary School, which can exit the state’s oversight list with a grade improvement. WPBF. Barron Trump, the son of former president Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, will attend the private Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach. He’s 15 and starting 10th grade. Palm Beach Post. WPEC.

Polk: Almost 2,200 students and 137 district employees were put into quarantine during the first week of school, the district reported. At least 343 students and 198 employees had a confirmed or suspected case of the coronavirus. The rise of COVID cases will be a topic at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Lakeland Ledger.

Pinellas, Tampa Bay area: More than 3,200 cases of the coronavirus were reported last week in the Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando public school districts. A year ago, the four districts were reporting a cumulative total of about 200 cases a week. Hillsborough had 2,153, Pinellas 523, Pasco 333 and Hernando 248. Since schools opened Aug. 10 and 11, the four districts have reported 4,980 cases, which is more than a quarter of the number reported for the entire 2021-2022 school year. Tampa Bay Times. Florida Politics.

Lee: The school district is temporarily closing its student enrollment office “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Parents will have to submit new registrations at, or drop paperwork in a box near the office entrance. Fort Myers News-Press. WINK. WFTX.

Brevard: James Madison Middle School in Titusville is closed today and Tuesday because of the coronavirus, according to district officials. Between last Tuesday and Thursday, the school of 470 students and 31 teachers reported 138 students and staff were under quarantine. Students will receive “synchronous instruction via a digital method.” As of Friday, about 8,000 students and employees were being quarantined due to possible exposure. Teachers union president Anthony Colucci, who is among those in isolation, said the Delta variant of the virus has hit schools “like a Mack truck.” Florida Today. WPEC. WESH.

Volusia, Flagler: In the first week of school, the Volusia school district reported 358 cases of the coronavirus. Flagler, which opened Aug. 10, reported 238. Neither district is releasing quarantine information, and masks are optional in both districts. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Manatee: More coronavirus cases have been reported in the first two weeks of school than the district had in the entire first semester last year. As of Friday, 825 cases among students and employees have been reported, while the total for the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year was 419. Bradenton Herald.

St. Johns: The youth resource deputy at St. Augustine High School has died of complications from COVID-19, the sheriff’s office announced Saturday. Jody Hull had been with the sheriff’s department four years, and before that had worked four years for the Putnam County sheriff. WJXT. WTLV. St. Augustine Record. In the first week of classes, the district reported 207 students testing positive for the coronavirus and 536 being sent into quarantine. By Friday, 75 district employees also tested positive and 35 were in quarantine. St. Augustine Record. WJXT.

Sarasota: The district is struggling with a shortage of teachers, substitutes, school bus drivers, dispatchers, cafeteria workers and custodians. “It’s a perfect storm. Across the board in a lot of classified positions we have had difficulty hiring,” said chief operations officer Jody Dumas. “It started out with a lot of vacant positions, but then you get a couple people on workers comp, some people calling in sick and then five, six, eight, 10 COVID cases in a department.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

St. Lucie, Martin Indian River: More than 7,500 students in the St. Lucie and Indian River school district have opted-out of wearing masks, according to district officials. In St. Lucie, 4,505, or 11.4 percent, have opted-out. In Indian River it’s 3,045 students, which is about 20 percent of overall enrollment. Face masks are optional in Martin County. TCPalm.

Leon: Forty-one students and five employees reported last that they had been infected with the coronavirus, bring the total number of cases in the district this school year to 222. Gilchrist Elementary and Lincoln High have the most with 15 apiece. The number of quarantined students jumped to 789. Tallahassee Democrat. A 17-year-old student was arrested Thursday for having a loaded gun at Godby High School in Tallahassee, according to deputies. After he was detained under three unrelated warrants, deputies found a 45-caliber gun in his pants. Tallahassee Democrat.

Alachua: An assistant principal at Gainesville High School was removed from the job and suspended for two days after a district investigation concluded he violated district policy when he was presented with evidence on a laptop that a student was being solicited by adult men. The mother of the student gave principal John Green her daughter’s laptop. Instead of turning it over to authorities, which is the district’s policy, Green had it reimaged, the investigation showed. Six days later the girl went missing, though she was later found safe and returned home. Green denied knowing the laptop might have had evidence of sex trafficking. WCJB.

Santa Rosa: The school district wants to buy part of the Gulf Breeze Flea Market property for a new high school and athletic facilities. A public hearing will be held Sept. 21 at Woodlawn Beach Middle School to discuss the district’s proposal to buy 35 acres for $8.7 million. Pensacola News Journal.

Colleges and universities: University of Florida faculty unions are urging school officials to follow the lead of the Alachua County School District and require everyone to wear masks in campus buildings. WCJB. The Florida Institute of Technology is the first college in the nation to own and fly an electric plane. The two-seat Velis Electro is still awaiting U.S. certification. Florida Institute of Technology.

Opinions on schools: Florida school districts need more support from state politicians, not more politics. Yet a proposed constitutional amendment would make all school board races partisan. Florida’s public schools already are dealing with the new COVID-19 surge. They don’t need a new political surge. Sun Sentinel. Perhaps the most important effect among the intellectual and moral responses of the child who witnessed his or her parents’ choice of schools is the affirmation of the sheer importance of the role of parent – of its dignity and authority – of its power to help the child. John E. Coons, redefinED. The Sarasota County School Board decided to make protecting the welfare of schoolchildren a higher priority than appeasing the demands of misguided state leaders or passionate parents opposed to facial coverings. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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BY NextSteps staff