In reversal, DeSantis won’t withhold school district funds

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The school district, which was confronting the loss of $1.3 million in funding for defying a Florida Department of Health emergency order prohibiting mask mandates on campus during the coronavirus pandemic last fall, got a reprieve from the governor.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week that $200 million in Florida School Recognition Program funds targeted for teacher bonuses and classroom improvements would not be withheld from the 12 districts that violated the order he endorsed.

Overruling the Legislature, which in March adopted a bill that supported penalizing the offending school districts, DeSantis directed the state Department of Education to “reward eligible schools for their achievements,” regardless of whether their districts disobeyed the FDOH order.

In his June 2 letter to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, DeSantis wrote that the School Recognition Program makes awards to schools – not districts – based on schools’ grades, and that “districts’ actions have no bearing on a school’s eligibility” for the funds.

School Board member Brian Barefoot, who was serving as chairman when the panel voted to impose the mask mandate, welcomed DeSantis’ reversal. Barefoot defended the board’s decision to require students and teachers to wear masks at a time when COVID-19’s Delta variant was raging, forcing the temporary closure of Beachland Elementary on the barrier island and Treasure Coast Elementary, near Sebastian.

“We were sitting here in Indian River County early in the Delta breakout, not knowing what was going to happen,” Barefoot said. “We were dealing with the situation on the ground. Two teachers had died, and two schools were closed.

“So we imposed a mask mandate for two weeks, and only at schools with a high number of cases,” he added. “Given all the uncertainty, it was the responsible thing to do.”

In fact, the state’s prohibition against school mask mandates was successfully challenged in court before being reversed on appeal. In the meantime, the FDOH revised its order, making it more specific and easier to follow.

The timing of the revision coincided with end of the district’s two-week mandate, and the board embraced the newly written order. Masks were no longer required; they were “highly recommended,” allowing parents to make those decisions.

Teri Barenborg, who succeeded Barefoot as board chair, said DeSantis’ directive to not withhold the funds was “fair to the hardworking employees who look forward to their well-earned bonuses.”

Vice Chair Peggy Jones said she was glad the governor changed course, explaining that she voted in favor of the mask mandate because, after discussing the matter with experts at Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital, she was convinced she was acting in the best interests of teachers, school administrators and especially students.

She was disturbed, however, by DeSantis reiterating in his letter his support for holding school board members and superintendents accountable for defying the order, “as long as schools weren’t impacted.”

Jones cited DeSantis’ claim that the state “had to overcome opposition from entrenched interests that were intent on shutting out our parents and students opportunity” to keep schools open, and his snide reference to “union-controlled school board members.”

She flatly rejected the governor’s inference that the School Board ignored the rights of parents opposed to the mask mandate. “We have to listen to all parents, not just the ones who support him,” Jones said.

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