Governor’s schools mask order meets resistance, but some districts won’t risk funding, and more

Districts resist mask order: Several school districts around the state are challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order intended to deter school officials from requiring students to wear face masks in classrooms by threatening to withhold state funds and giving parents the right to disregard district mask mandates. Broward, Duval, Alachua and Leon officials all have made decisions this week that seem to run counter to the order. The governor has yet to respond to those districts, but his spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, has said that any district mask mandates are unenforceable. “We are finalizing health and education emergency rules this week that do not prohibit masks in schools but will require parents to have the right to opt their children out. School districts will be expected to allow parents to make this choice,” Pushaw said Wednesday. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Associated Press. Tampa Bay Times. Gov. DeSantis vowed Wednesday to “stand in the way” if President Biden tries to impose coronavirus restrictions on the state’s schools and residents. Orlando Sentinel. Panama City News Herald. Does the growing challenge by school districts have the potential to cut into the governor’s power, which has expanded during the pandemic? Politico Florida.

Around the state: Broward school leaders say their mask mandate remains in place while they weigh their options, Leon County’s superintendent asks Gov. DeSantis to allow districts “flexibility and autonomy” to keep students safe, Orange school officials are requiring all district employees to wear masks beginning Friday, Hillsborough and Palm Beach schools are declining to challenge the governor for fear of losing funding from the state, a Duval County teacher’s contract has not been renewed as the district settles a lawsuit she brought after being removed from class for refusing to take down a Black Lives Matter flag, a one-year entrepreneur program is launched at two Lake County high schools, some Martin County parents say the school district’s quarantine policy is “persecution,” and the state’s general revenues in June exceeded projections. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: While school officials announced this week that they intended to comply with Gov. DeSantis’ executive order aimed at prohibiting districts from requiring students to wear face masks to school this fall, on Wednesday they again changed course and said they would review the order and weigh their options. “In light of the governor’s executive order, the district is awaiting further guidance before rendering a decision on the mask mandate for the upcoming school year,” district officials said in a statement. “At this time, the district’s face covering policy, which requires the use of masks in district schools and facilities, remains in place.” The school board will continue talking to its health advisers and discuss its options at a special meeting Aug. 10. The first day of school is Aug. 18. Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. WSVN. WTVJ. The district is the target of a lawsuit for allegedly denying a request to see records that an advocacy group thinks would show that “pornographic” books are being made available to students. The Pacific Justice Institute filed the suit on behalf of the Florida Citizens Alliance. The district had no comment. Christian Post.

Hillsborough: Superintendent Addison Davis said face masks will be optional for students this fall because he won’t risk losing state funding. Other safety protocols include social distancing, continued cleaning measures, and teachers instead of students changing classes. One-way lanes are also encouraged for walking in the hallways. Vaccinated students exposed to someone with the coronavirus won’t have to quarantine, while unvaccinated students will quarantine for seven days, or six days with a negative COVID test. WTVT. WFTS. WTSP. WFLA.

Orange: School officials announced Wednesday that all district employees and school visitors will be required to wear face masks on campuses, beginning Friday. “We must make every effort within our control to protect students and employees. I do not take these matters lightly,” Superintendent Barbara  Jenkins said in a video message that was emailed to employees and parents. “This extra layer of mitigation will provide some protection to employees and students as we continue to monitor community trends in consultation with medical experts.” The directive will be in place for 30 days and then be re-evaluated. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. WMFE. WESH. WOFL. Schools don’t reopen until Tuesday, but district officials are already monitoring 28 cases of the coronavirus. Twenty-three of those testing positive are employees. WESH. Parents are being encouraged by district officials to drive their children to school to help avoid overcrowding on buses. WKMG.

Palm Beach: Interim superintendent Michael Burke has decided to keep face masks optional in schools because neither he nor the school board want to challenge the governor’s executive order and risk losing state funding. “I have no reason to believe at this time a legal challenge would be successful,” Burke said. “The threat would jeopardize our ability to make payroll.” Instead, Burke said he will adjust the policy to note that the district now “strongly encourages” students to wear masks when schools reopen next Tuesday. Palm Beach Post. WPTV. WPEC.

Duval: Details of the school board’s settlement with high school teacher Amy Donofrio still are not known, but the district did announce her contract has not been renewed. Donofrio was reassigned after refusing to take down a Black Lives Matter flag that hung outside her Lee High School (now named Riverside High) classroom. “What happened to me is symptomatic of a much bigger problem, and that’s the extreme ends Duval County Public Schools has shown it’s willing to go to uphold racism,” said Donofrio, who had been a teacher for 13 years. “Administrators and school board members’ cowardly failure to stand beside black students is exactly why I knew I had to.” Florida Times-Union. Florida Politics.

Lee: A former speech and drama teacher at the Canterbury School in Fort Myers from 2011-2019 has been sentenced to 12-30 years in prison for sexually abusing students at a Michigan school in the 1970s. Joseph Comperchio, 67, pleaded guilty in June and was sentenced Wednesday in Jackson, Mich. WBBH. WINK.

Brevard: Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy is believed to be the only private school in the county to impose a face mask mandate for students and employees. The school has 800 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Spokeswoman Nicki Hensley said the decision was the result of a “thoughtful and deliberative” process by the school’s health and safety committee. Florida Today.

Collier: School Superintendent Kamela Patton has been named the Naples Daily News outstanding citizen of the year, which is given annually to “a deserving resident who has made significant impacts, perhaps community changing, for Collier County.” Naples Daily News.

Lake: Three young businessmen have launched a year-long pilot program to develop entrepreneurs at Tavares and Eustis high schools. The schools will partner with INCubatoredu, a national entrepreneurship program, and local businesses to help students learn skills to build businesses. The program ends with a Shark Tank-style business pitch. “We are trying to bring out that business and entrepreneurship in young people,” said one of the program founders, 21-year-old Kevon Miller. “Instead of making the boxes, why don’t you make the boxes better and start your own company?” His business partners are Bilal Sattar, 20, and Taijhaun Lucas, 20. Daily Commercial.

Clay: Growth in the county is expected to add 10,000 students to the school district in the next 20 years, director of safety and security James Fossa told the school board this week. “Clay County is one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida and it’s really fueled by the First Coast Expressway,” Fossa said. “The total number of new students (coming in) … is a big number and that’s scaring me a lot right now.” He said seven new schools are being planned in the next 10 years. Clay Today.

Leon: School Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who said he initially supported Gov. DeSantis’ order that was meant to stop districts from ordering students to wear masks in schools, has changed his mind and is now pleading with the governor to allow districts “flexibility and autonomy” to keep students safe. Specifically, Hanna is asking to be permitted to temporarily require face masks for K-8 students, most of whom aren’t eligible to receive vaccinations. Hanna said he changed his mind when the COVID positivity rate recently jumped from 2 percent to about 14 percent and several school-aged children were hospitalized. “That is the game-changer for me,” Hanna said Wednesday. Tallahassee Democrat. WTXL. WCTV. WFSU. Florida Politics.

Bay: District officials said the summer program was a success, with 25 students earning credits to graduate, 1,194 credit courses recovered and 109 high schoolers and 67 middle schoolers earning grade promotions. Superintendent Bill Husfelt said the program will continue with money from a federal stimulus bill. “The neat thing is we’re going to continue to do this for the next three years and we’re pretty sure that funding is going to help us do it,” he said. “It just becomes a multiplier, where more and more kids, families and generations are impacted positively because of it.” Panama City News Herald.

Martin: Some parents are criticizing the school district’s quarantine rules for the coming school year. Unvaccinated students and employees who are exposed to someone with the coronavirus must stay at home 10 days even if they are asymptomatic, though they can return on Day 8 if they test negative for the virus. “Sending home people that aren’t sick that aren’t showing symptoms that just might have passed by or sat next to somebody that has COVID is really just a persecution,” said parent Catherine O’Connor. Local health officials said they’re awaiting further guidance from the state. WPTV.

Indian River: Four district schools will soon be installing playgrounds that are more accessible to students with special needs. All four should be ready for students by December. WPTV.

Charlotte: School board members passed a tentative 2021-2022 budget that includes raises for teachers, free meals for students at all 20 schools, facility upgrades and renovations, and a slight drop in the property tax millage rate. The board meets Sept. 9 to take a final vote on the budget. Charlotte Sun.

Flagler: A therapist who worked for a counseling firm that has a contract with the school district has been arrested and accused of raping a 16-year-old patient at his Palm Coast office in June. Deputies said Robert Batie, 60, was arrested Tuesday at his office. He had been employed by Palm Coast Counseling. Flagler Live. WOFL. WESH. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Walton: Florida Standards Assessments and end-of-course test results declined slightly this year for Walton students, but Superintendent A. Russell Hughes said the district remains one of the higher-performing in the state. Walton students ranked in the state’s top 10 in 16 of 21 areas tested. DeFuniak Herald.

Gulf: Superintendent Jim Norton said he expects enrollment to top 1,815 this year, with about 800 in in Wewahitchka, 536 at Port St. Joe in grades 7-12, and about 485 at Port St. Joe Elementary. He also reported that the district needs just one or two more teachers. Port St. Joe Star.

Colleges and universities: Keiser University said Wednesday that it will require its 3,800 employees to be vaccinated by next month. Keiser is a private university based in Palm Beach County with 21 campuses around the state. Palm Beach Post. Five students from three Florida colleges are among 86 U.S. students honored in this year’s White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Florida Times-Union. Target is the latest retailer to offer its workers free undergraduate and associate degree college programs and textbooks. Associated Press. Enrollment of foreign students in U.S. colleges and universities dropped 20 percent during the pandemic, and officials are looking for strategies to lure them back. NPR.

State tax revenues: The state’s general revenues, which are the primary source of funds for education, again exceeded forecasts in June. Revenues were $4.1 billion, which is $975.7 million higher than expected as the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic continues. News Service of Florida.

Education podcasts: Kansas state Rep. Kristey Williams talks with Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill about that state’s recent expansion of school choice, the legislature’s struggle to get rural politicians to support that expansion and how education savings accounts could benefit rural communities. redefinED.

Opinions on schools: A legal battle over a school district’s authority to require students to wear face masks at school is worth having with the state if it protects children’s lives. Gainesville Sun. The argument that mask mandates unduly infringe on personal or parental freedoms rings hollow given that schools already have dress codes and require most students to get vaccinated against infectious diseases like polio and measles. And the idea of withholding funding from districts that are trying to keep kids safe during a pandemic defies logic and reeks of political insecurity. Tampa Bay Times. Duval school Superintendent Diana Greene does not lead a perfect school system, but she and the school board have withstood opposition from powerful special interests and the increasingly autocratic Florida Department of Education, led by an unqualified acolyte of Gov. DeSantis, to better the lives of students, faculty and staff. Nate Monroe, Florida Times-Union.

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BY NextSteps staff