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Friday, December 08, 2023

Alachua County Public Schools to defy state ultimatum to make masking optional

Anticipating a legal battle, four school board members could lose one-twelfth of their annual salary each month

Alachua County Public Schools plans to require masks despite risking cuts to school board members’ salaries, according to school board officials.

A State Board of Education order gave ACPS and the Broward County School Board 48 hours to comply with statewide guidance to make wearing masks in public schools optional.

Although there may be potential losses and consequences, ACPS chose to reject the guidance. 

The decision goes against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting mask enforcement policies in K-12 schools.

The ACPS mask mandate requires medical documentation to opt-out of masking, which contradicts the state rule allowing parents to opt students out without medical reasons or additional requirements, according to the State Board of Education order.

“...the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask,” the Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule stated.

The order states the Florida Department of Education will cut annual salaries by one-twelfth of all four current school board members — Leanetta McNealy, Tina Certain, Gunnar Paulson and Robert Hyatt. 

ACPS will be required to report each of their salary information.  If the school board doesn't comply with statewide guidance, each member will lose one-twelfth of their total salary every month until the rule expires or is withdrawn, according to the order. 

The order states the slash in funding cannot affect student services or teacher pay. 

The annual salary of the four school board members is $40,287 each, ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said. The members will each lose roughly $3,350 this month as an “initial step.” 

It’s unclear how much could be lost each month the order is defied. 

“They feel that the protection of the health and safety and lives of our students and staff and helping to protect the community in what is obviously a time of critical crisis is more important than the potential loss of their salaries,” she said.

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If the school board does not provide salary compensation information within the 48 hour-period, the Florida Department of Education will withhold state funds based on the most recent estimates until it is provided.

ACPS Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a statement that the Alachua County Commission has offered to make up any loss of funding the state may impose. It’s unclear as of Friday how much money the commission will provide or how the district may utilize it.

“Based on the dramatic spike in cases and quarantines in our schools and community, we believe universal masking is critical to keeping schools open,” Simon said. “I’m gratified by the outpouring of positive messages the district has been receiving.”

Simon received a call Friday afternoon from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who offered his support and that of the entire U.S. Department of Education for any school district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies.

Cardona wrote in a statement that President Biden recommended he remedy financial penalties imposed by the state using CARES, CRRSA, or American Rescue funds, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Education.

“It is deeply troubling to see state leaders putting politics ahead of the health and safety of our students,” he wrote. “The President asked me to do everything I can to protect our nation’s students and support the local leaders who are fighting for them.”

Both ACPS spokesperson Johnson and Superintendent Simon said they expect a legal battle to come from the state’s threat to school board salaries. 

“Over the next few days, we will continue to do what we have been doing, which is looking at all options that we have available to us, and that includes legal options,” Johnson said. 

School board meetings with experts in pediatrics, neurology, immunology and emergency medicine have made it clear masks are necessary during this COVID-19 surge, Johnson said. 

She notes the surge is putting an enormous strain on the county’s health care system, citing increasing hospital and ICU beds and staff overwhelmed and overburdened with emergency care.

“This is backed up by science and by local medical experts who are obviously intimately familiar with the local situation,” Johnson said. “It’s the right thing to do. It protects our students and staff and the entire community — it helps lessen the strain on our medical system here in Alachua.”

Contact Alexandra Harris at Follow her on Twitter @harris_alex_m.

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Alexandra Harris

Alexandra is a senior journalism major reporting on Science/Environment for The Alligator. Her work has appeared in The Gainesville Sun, and she filed public records requests for the Why Don't We Know investigative podcast. She has a passion for the environment.

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