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ALACHUA COUNTY ‒ On Monday, Aug. 30, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced that the Florida Department of Education (DOE) withheld monthly school board member salaries in Alachua and Broward counties, as directed by the State Board of Education.

Corcoran is making good on a threat targeting local school boards that required students to wear masks in direct violation of Governor Ron DeSantis’s executive order against mask mandates. The is in despite of Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper issuing a ruling that stops the Florida Department of Education from leveling sanctions on school districts that require face coverings.

In Alachua County, members make about $40,000 a year and in Broward County about $46,000. The money will be withheld on a monthly basis until the school systems come into compliance, amounting to a reduction of $13,429 per month for the Alachua County School System.

The state does not pay salaries of local officials and cannot withhold the salaries directly. Corcoran previously said that he may recommend withholding funds “in an amount equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”

On Monday, his department said that the counties had been instructed to cut school board compensation and nothing else despite that fact that the DOE is removing the funds from the general budget. While restricting the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) budget, the state will cover expenses for students that transfer to schools in neighboring counties or to private and charter schools that have no mask mandate.

SBAC has seen a continual reduction in state funding for the past decade including a 50-percent reduction in facilities money equaling a loss of $168 million to county schools. Many COVID-19 expenses for readjusting the teaching systems, sanitizing classrooms and buses and other changes and purchases required were absorbed in large part by the school districts, further strapping their budgets. The state did reimburse for digital distance learning equipment.

On issuing the order Monday evening, Corcoran said the department would fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children. “They know what is best for their children.”

The CDC and most medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), have stated that mask mandates help control the infection rate. Corcoran also did not address whether the rights of the parents who want masking were considered as well in the Parents Bill of Rights.

The Delta variant has proven to be much more infectious with more serious illness than previous versions and infects younger age groups more. Currently Florida has a bigger surge than the peak rate last year. As of Aug. 28, there were 865,406 active cases in Florida. The state recorded more than 31,700 new COVID-19 cases in Floridians age 19 and younger last week. There were also two additional deaths of Floridians under the age of 16 reported.

Daily data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows there are currently 224 children in hospitals in Florida as of Monday, the highest reported number in more than a year. According to the data, there were only 20 children admitted to hospitals across the state on July 1. On Aug. 1, that number increased to 103 cases and as of Aug. 30.

Dr. Raul Pino with the Department of Health in Orange County says children make up the largest group of new cases, with 19 percent of all new cases in children ages 5-14, adding that this is the age group where most are not eligible to be vaccinated.

In the Alachua County School System there are currently 569 student cases with 412 of these in the last 14 days and 141 staff cases. In addition, 1,761 students and 48 staff are in quarantine totaling 2,330 students who cannot attend school. While these numbers are alarming, Alachua County, with a mask mandate for both the school system, government and businesses, has the second lowest positivity rate in the state at 15.8 percent. Neighboring Columbia County, which has no mask mandate, has a 30.8 percent positivity rate.

Due to the surge, the SBAC, along with 10 other school districts, are pursuing legal measures against the mandate. In response to Corcoran's restriction of funds, Alachua School Superintendent Carlee Simon released a statement on Tuesday regarding the decision of the SBAC to continue the mask mandate.

Simon said, “I'm very troubled by the state's action...We have already begun working with our colleagues in other districts to take legal action. We believe this is a necessary step to ensure that Florida's districts have the right to act in the best interests of those they serve.”

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