Leon judge lifts stay on state mask mandates, student and teacher die of COVID, and more

Judge vacates mask order stay: Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper has blocked the state’s ban on requiring students to wear face masks without giving parents the option to opt-out. Cooper issued his written ruling against the state Sept. 2, and it was quickly appealed by attorneys for Gov. Ron DeSantis, which triggered an automatic stay. The parents who challenged the ban took the case back to Cooper, arguing that the appeals process could take a month or more and that districts needed to be able to act quickly to require masks to keep students safe if they think local conditions demand it. Wednesday, Cooper agreed with those parents, even as he acknowledged that throwing out the stay is unusual. “We’re not in normal times,” he said. “We’re in a pandemic.” The state announced that it will appeal the decision and ask the court to reinstate the governor’s order. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Politico Florida. USA Today Florida Network. Miami Herald. Orlando Sentinel. Sun Sentinel. Florida Phoenix. WLRN. WSVN. WPTV. WFSU. Capitol News Service. Yet another group has filed a petition asking an administrative law judge to overturn the state Department of Health’s rule intended to block districts from issuing face mask mandates for students. This challenge was brought by the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Florida Student Power Network and several families, and is similar to earlier petitions filed by Miami-Dade’s school board, and a joint effort by Broward’s, Orange’s and Alachua’s school boards. News Service of Florida. A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday in another lawsuit against the state. Parents of 13 children with disabilities contend the state’s rule on masks is unconstitutional because it violates laws by limiting their children’s rights to an education. News Service of Florida.

Around the state: A 15-year-old Escambia County high school student and a special education inclusion teacher in Polk County have died of complications from the coronavirus, several districts justify their face mask mandates to the state, Broward asks state officials to release more federal relief aid for schools, teachers and the St. Johns district reach an agreement on COVID sick days and bonuses for some employees, Gulf County schools are closed today because of Tropical Storm Mindy, and budgets are approved by the Manatee, Leon, Citrus and Monroe school boards. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: One student was taken to a hospital for a heat-related medical issue after South Plantation High School was evacuated for about two hours Wednesday because of a bomb threat. Another student also was affected by the heat while waiting in bleachers at the school’s athletic field while the threat was investigated, but was taken home by a parent. WPLG. WFOR. WTVJ. Miami Herald.

Broward: In a letter to the governor, interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright is asking the state to release some of the federal relief aid it’s received so Broward and other districts can “help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our students and staff.” The state has received more than $15 billion to be used to support students who are struggling both academically and mentally, and to add safety measures against the coronavirus. So far the state has released just $2.8 billion from the fund, and Gov. DeSantis’ spokeswoman Christina Pushaw noted that the money must last over several years. Florida Phoenix.

Hillsborough: Earlier this year, school board members were so disenchanted with Superintendent Addison Davis that they put him on a performance plan and at least one board member wondered on social media if there was enough support to fire him. And Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatened a financial takeover of the district if it didn’t bolster its reserves. But things seem to have turned around for Davis. In their written evaluations of Davis, most board members say his performance has improved even though concerns remain. The evaluation will be discussed and presented at today’s meeting. Also on today’s agenda is the district’s face mask mandate, which expires next week unless it’s renewed. The policy requires students to wear face masks unless they have a medical exemption. Tampa Bay Times. WFLA.

Polk: Another school district employee has died of complications from the coronavirus, the fifth since schools opened Aug. 10. The death of Elizabeth Benitez, a special education inclusion teacher at Carlton Palmore Elementary School in Lakeland, was announced at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Board member Kay Fields renewed her call for a face mask mandate, and also wants the district to bring back the remote program eLearning to keep quarantined students connected. No action was taken on either issue. A vote is scheduled Oct. 26 to remove the mask policy for students. Lakeland Ledger.

Lee: The district has cited advice from county health officials and other health experts in its letter to the state justifying its face mask mandate for students with opt-outs only for medical reasons. Its actions to protect students and employees during the pandemic comply with the governor’s executive order, it contended. “Since the start of this year, we have had students and staff members hospitalized, and have had employees pass away from this deadly virus,” district spokesman Rob Spicker wrote in a statement. “We have had to close 92 classrooms compared to 76 during the entire 2020-21 school year. This yields over a 1,089 percent increase in weekly classroom closures during a surge in COVID-19 like we have never before experienced.” Fort Myers News-Press. WINK. WBBH.

Brevard: School officials have told the Florida Department of Education that they believe they are complying the state’s rule on face masks as well as Florida statutes and the state constitution to protect students and employees, and won’t change their face mask mandate for students with an opt-out only with a medical excuse. The state has threatened to withhold funds equal to the monthly pay of school board members if the district doesn’t give parents the ability to opt-out. Florida Today.

Manatee: A budget of more than $1 billion was approved unanimously this week by school board members. That’s almost 22 percent higher than last year’s $879 million. The millage rate was dropped from 6.972 to 6.876, but will generate more tax revenues because of higher property valuations and new construction. More than $331 million of the budget is earmarked for capital projects. Bradenton Herald.

St. Johns: Teachers will get eight personal days for COVID-related absences under an agreement reached this week between the union and the district. Another part of the deal will direct bonuses of $1,000 to all fulltime district employees who didn’t receive money from the state’s bonuses program, and $500 to all part-timers. Union members and the school board still have to approve the agreement. WJXT.

Leon: School board members unanimously approved a budget of $561 million for this school year. That’s $35 million more than last year’s budget, and it includes $1,000 bonuses for all workers and $7 million extra to cover cost increases for the Florida Retirement System and health insurance. Chief financial officer Kim Banks also said the district is expecting to receive another $40 million to $60 million in federal relief aid. Tallahassee Democrat. Homecoming activities, including the football game, at Chiles High School in Tallahassee have been postponed for a month because of the rise in coronavirus cases. WTXL.

Escambia: A 15-year-old student at Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola died earlier this month of COVID-19 complications. Victoria Ramirez came down with COVID-like symptoms in mid-August, according to her family. She was tested at a hospital and sent home, but returned about a week later when her symptoms worsened and she was having trouble breathing. She died a few days later. WEAR.

Citrus: A $288.99 million budget was approved this week by the school board. The budget includes $27.73 million for capital projects and $15.28 million in federal relief funds. Citrus County Chronicle.

Columbia: Two teenagers were arrested last Friday for carrying guns into a Columbia High School football game, according to sheriff’s deputies. A 14-year-old was carrying two handguns in his waistband and a 15-year-old had one, deputies said. School district officials have implemented new security measures for school athletic events. WGFL.

Monroe: School board members declined this week to put further restrictions on the district’s face mask mandate. In a 4-1 vote, the board decided to continue to require students to wear face masks, but allow parents to opt-out. About 15 percent of the district’s 8,465 students have permission to opt-out, but many wear masks anyway, said Superintendent Theresa Axford. So far this school year, 187 students, 17 teachers and 23 other district employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The school board also approved a $117 million budget, which is about $2 million higher than last year’s. Key West Citizen. Miami Herald. The district is the first to adopt Florida International University’s science-based curriculum called Mission Inspire. The first two programs are Expedition Ocean and Expedition Biscayne Bay, and will be taught to 7th- and 9th-graders. Key West Citizen.

Gulf: District schools are closed today because of the expected impact from Tropical Storm Mindy. “With the storm intensifying in strength and pointed in our direction, the Gulf County commissioners have declared a local state of emergency for our area,” said Superintendent Jim Norton. “We once again find ourselves forced to take precautions to ensure the safety of our students and staff. With many of our roadways in poor condition due to the continued rain and the danger high winds pose for our buses as they cross over bridges, transporting students is impractical and perhaps dangerous. Additionally, the dead and damaged trees which are remnants of other recent storms, increase the likelihood of power outages.” Port St. Joe Star. WJHG.

Colleges and universities: The University of South Florida plans to build an on-campus football stadium, board of trustees chair Will Weatherford announced Wednesday. The first step will be settling on a site on the north Tampa campus. Tampa Bay Times. The music school at the University of West Florida has received an $8.5 million donation from the estate of Dr. Herman and Valerie Rolfs that will be used as an endowment for scholarships. Pensacola News Journal.

A moment of silence: Schools around the state are still experimenting with ways to comply with a new law that requires them to provide students up to two minutes of silence every day. At Apopka Middle School in Orange County, educator Anne Leatherbarrow said the school uses a minute of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance. “We love it,” she said. Florida Phoenix.

Education pessimism: A majority of Americans and, specifically parents of schoolchildren, believe K-12 education is on the wrong track, according to a poll by the education reform organization EdChoice. Forty-one percent of the general population and 44 percent of parents of schoolchildren like the current direction of education, and both those numbers are generally on an upward trend. About 92 percent of parents whose children are in private schools said they are very or somewhat satisfied with the instruction their children are getting, compared to 87 percent of home-education parents, 78 percent whose children are in charter schools, and 73 percent whose children attend public schools. Support for education choice remains strong, with 84 percent of parents backing education savings accounts, 80 percent supporting tax credit scholarships, 78 percent backing vouchers and 74 percent supporting charter schools. reimaginED.

Education podcasts: New Hampshire state Rep. Glenn Cordelli talks with Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill about that state’s legislative approval of a landmark education savings account program following years of failed attempts, its tax credit scholarship and more. reimaginED.

Around the nation: Children now represent more than 25 percent of the nation’s coronavirus cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children made up 251,781 of the 939,470 cases reported nationwide between Aug. 26 and Sept. 2. “After declining in early summer, child cases have increased exponentially, with over 750,000 cases added between Aug. 5 and Sept. 2,” the academy’s data showed. CNN. Washington Post. The threat of teaching critical race theory in U.S. classrooms, real or imagined, appears to be a motivating factor in expanding the interest and involvement of Republicans in local school board elections. Politico.

Opinions on schools: Given our responsibility for a safe and effective learning environment, our current conditions, and the professional recommendations, I believe it is our school board’s duty to implement all mitigation strategies to include requiring masks when conditions dictate. Pinellas school board member Laura Hine, Tampa Bay Times. Roughly two in three Americans – parents and non-parents alike – are in favor of schools or states implementing mask mandates for teachers and students. Yet at their last meeting, the Martin County School Board majority acted as if just having a conversation about masks would cause too great of an uproar. Blake Fontenay, TCPalm.