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Lee School District defends emergency mask mandate

Says it has constitutional authority to protect students and staff

By Citizen staff report - | Sep 8, 2021

The School District of Lee County has provided a response to the Florida Department of Education, which gave the district until 10 a.m. today to explain its “inconsistency” with a state rule concerning mask mandates.

Although an Executive Order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis calls for parental opt-out provisions to any local mask mandate imposed by school districts, district imposed a 30-day emergency mandate based on the number of COVID cases within Lee County.

The district responded to the DOE via letter, saying the district is in compliance with the Emergency Rule issued by the FLDOH as well as well the Parents’ Bill of Rights passed int he recent legislative session. It also says the district is constitutionally “empowered to act to protect its students and staff” in the face of the rising number of COVID cases and hospitalizations.

“This past week the SDLC received 2,866 reports of school exposures and reported positives,” the district responded. “As a result of the aforementioned COVID-19 predominantly delta variant cases, the SDLC has had to shut down ninety-two (92) classrooms since the start of the 2021-22 school year (4 weeks). In comparison, seventy-six (76) classrooms were shut down due to COVID-19 within the SDLC during the entire 2020-21 school year. This yields over a 1089% increase in weekly classroom closures and a surge in COVID-19 positive cases and exposures never before experienced in the SDLC prior to this moment in time.”

The District also posted an abbreviated explanation to parents on the district website.

“The School District of Lee County has a constitutional duty, statutory authority and primary responsibility to provide a safe learning environment for all students and employees,” the message to parents posted today reads.

“Since the start of this year, we have had students and staff members hospitalized, and have had employees pass away from this deadly virus. We have had to close 92 classrooms compared to 76 during the entire 2020-21 school year. This yields over a 1089% increase in weekly classroom closures during a surge in COVID-19 like we have never before experienced.

“We view 30 days of temporary masking, during conditions far worse than at any point during this pandemic, as imperative to containing the spread of a highly contagious virus, and to protect and possibly save lives.

“It is the position of this District that our temporary masking requirement, along with all our other mitigation efforts, is necessary, reasonable, narrowly tailored and least restrictive to address the health crisis in our community.”

The local mask mandate took effect on Sept. 1.

The DOE letter from Commissioner Richard Corcoran was dated Sept. 3 and sent to Superintendent Dr. Ken Savage and School Board Chair Debbie Jordan. It addressed compliance with an emergency rule from the Florida Department of Health and also a ruling by Leon County Judge John C. Cooper who found that Gov. Ron DeSantis exceeded his authority when he issued an executive order banning such mandates.

“Recent reports in the media indicate that the Lee County School Board has taken action inconsistent with the emergency rule by limiting or conditioning the parental ability to opt out of a face covering or mask mandate. Your rationale may be based on Judge Cooper’s recent order; however; at this point, an automatic stay is in effect. This means the Department of Education may resume enforcement of the Florida Department of Health’s emergency rule. In the event the stay is lifted, then enforcement action will be automatically tolled,” Corcoran wrote in the letter.

The State Board of Education oversees the performance of district school boards in enforcement of all laws and rules and the commissioner of education may “investigate allegations of noncompliance with law, or state board rule and determine probable cause.” Due to this statute, the commissioner, in commencing with the investigation, demanded that the School District of Lee County provide a written response by the imposed deadline to document how they are in compliance with the Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule.

Letter to Commissioner of Education Regarding Face Coverings