Mask and quarantines court decision due by Nov. 5, more districts relaxing mask mandates, and more

Masks, quarantines rule decision: An administrative law judge said he will issue a ruling by Nov. 5 in the challenge by six school boards of the Florida Department of Health’s rules banning face mask mandates and giving parents the authority to decide whether to quarantine asymptomatic children who are exposed to COVID-19. The school boards contend that the health department did not follow procedural requirements for issuing an emergency rule, while the state argued the department was within its authority to place the restrictions on school districts. Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious-disease specialist and professor at Florida International University, testified that masks work. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” she said. She also argued that parents shouldn’t decide if it’s safe to send their asymptomatic children to school after being exposed to the coronavirus. Florida’s K-12 chancellor, Jacob Oliva, disagreed, saying, “Parents know their child the best and ultimately they should be the decision makers.” Judge Brian Newman gave both sides until Friday to submit their proposed final orders on how they’d like him to rule. News Service of Florida. Capitol News Service. Sun Sentinel. WESH.

Around the state: Palm Beach County school officials said any decision on relaxing the district’s face mask mandate is probably at least a month away, while the Brevard, Seminole and Marion districts all decided Friday to make masks optional, Lee County schools introduce a new grading system, health professionals at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Duval County are reporting a 300 percent increase in the number of children being admitted for mental health issues, an Okaloosa County high school teacher’s decision to show her class an R-rated movie is now under criminal investigation by the sheriff’s office, Santa Rosa district officials are considering whether to install vaping detection devices in schools, and electrocardiograms are being offered to all Flagler County district student-athletes. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: A security guard at the Green Springs High charter school in Miami was arrested Thursday and accused of lewd and lascivious conduct against a 15-year-old student. Jorge Florencio Macia, 71, denies the allegations. WTVJ.

Broward: Florida’s Ethics Commission ruled Friday that Broward County School Board members whose salaries are being withheld by the state would not be violating state gift rules if they accepted an equivalent amount from the U.S. Department of Education. After the school board imposed a face mask mandate with opt-outs only for medical reasons, the state declared its members in violation of the state’s rule giving parents the right to opt-out, and withheld board members’ salaries. The Biden administration stepped in and said it would replace any funding withheld over mask mandates. Face mask policies are the subject of several cases now in the courts. Florida Politics.

Hillsborough: A Tampa mother who removed her two children from district magnet schools because of their face mask mandates is now suing the school board. Amarilis Vazquez, a certified emergency medical technician, accepted Hope Scholarships for her children to go to a private school. But that school doesn’t have sports, and Vazquez wanted her children to play at those magnet schools. The district said she could either enroll her children back into their magnet schools, which she says she can’t do because she can’t afford to pay back the $4,000 she’s accepted in Hope Scholarships, or stay in the private school and have them play sports at their zoned school. “That’s not something I’ve ever permitted as a parent,” she said. District officials said they’re following athletic eligibility rules established by the Florida High School Athletic Association. Vazquez claims the district’s “being petty and getting back at me for exercising my parental choice.” Florida Politics.

Palm Beach: While other districts are relaxing their face mask mandates, Palm Beach school officials said the district’s policy on masks could remain in place for at least another month. On Oct. 6, district officials set three benchmarks for changing the mask policy: the county’s coronavirus positivity rate being under 8 percent for four straight weeks, the availability of vaccinations for students 5 to 11 years old, and an average weekly number of new cases in the county below 50 per 100,000 residents for four consecutive weeks. The positivity rate was 4.1 percent for the week ending Oct. 14, and approval of vaccines for children 5 to 11 could be just weeks away. And while the rate of new cases has been declining quickly, it was 96.2 per 100,000 for the week ending Oct. 14. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: Health professionals at Wolfson Children’s Hospital are reporting a 300 percent increase in the number of children being admitted for mental health issues such as suicide attempts, anxiety and depression and eating disorders since 2020. Superintendent Diana Greene said more students are showing an openness to talking about their problems. In January, the district will launch training for employees on suicide prevention and to help spot students struggling with trauma. Florida Times-Union. Building permits have been approved for a new IDEA Public Schools K-8 charter school on the north side of Jacksonville. The projected cost for the two-story school is $14 million, and it’s expected to open next fall. Florida Times-Union.

Pinellas: Students in the Tarpon Springs High School Veterinary Science Academy get to hone their surgical skills on Sponger, a $45,000 synthetic cadaver dog that bleeds, breathes and mimics living tissue with individual muscles, bones, organs and a complete circulatory system. Here’s what they see during instructor Krissy Tallarino’s veterinary assisting course. Tampa Bay Times.

Lee: A new grading system has been instituted by the district that officials hope will help students who have fallen behind during the pandemic. In the old system, grades were determined by the percentage system, in which 90 to 100 is an A, 80 to 89 a B, and so on. The new system involves a complex calculation that can help boost students to a higher mark than they would have gotten under the old system. WINK. The Cape Coral City Council has reinstated a 7 percent tax on electricity and natural gas to help pay off the debt of the city’s charter school district. The tax is expected to raise about $2.6 million a year. The charter school district leases its buildings from the city for about $3 million a year. When the charter school district was established about 20 years ago, it promised to be self-sustaining. About 15 percent of the city’s children attend the schools. Fort Myers News-Press.

Brevard: Parents can now choose to opt their children out of wearing face masks at school, district officials announced Friday. Superintendent Mark Mullins had been authorized by the school board to end the mandate once the number of cases in the county dropped to 50 per 100,000. Friday, the rate hit 50.1, and Mullins ended the policy that had angered parents and prompted the state to threaten to withhold funding from the district until a parental opt-out was enacted. State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, a critic of the mandate, said, “While I am incredibly pleased that we have defeated these education tyrants, know this: I do not give mulligans. There will be consequences for what happened to Sofia — and every one of our children.” He was referring to a report that a 7-year-old student with Down’s syndrome, named Sofia, had been sent home from Ocean Breeze Elementary School in Indian Harbour Beach on Oct. 7 with a mask tied to her head with a nylon string. The school district is investigating. Florida Today. Fox News. WKMG. WESH.

Seminole: School officials said Friday that the district’s mandatory face masks policy, with parental opt-outs, will not be renewed when it expires Oct. 29. Visitors and volunteers will also be welcome back on campuses Nov. 1. A district spokesperson said the change is “a result of the current status of community transmission of COVID-19 cases within Seminole County.” WFTV. WKMG. WESH.

Marion: Face masks are now optional for students, employees, volunteers and visitors at district schools. School officials made the announcement Friday after the county’s case rate dropped to 68 per 100,000 residents. The positivity rate has been below 10 percent for a month. In mid-August, when the board imposed a mask mandate that included a parental opt-out, the case rate was 850 per 100,000 and the positivity rate was 30 percent. Board members said the mandates would continue until the county reported less than 100 cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of less than 10 percent for two weeks. Ocala Star-Banner. WFTV. WCJB.

Okaloosa: A Niceville High School teacher’s decision to show her class an R-rated movie is now under criminal investigation by the sheriff’s office. “It is an active investigation that has been assigned to investigations,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Michele Nicholson. The school district is also conducting its own investigation, and the teacher has been placed on administrative leave. The 2004 movie, Alexander, stars Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell, and contains nudity, domestic violence, homosexual acts and rape scenes. One parent said showing students the film was “distribution of pornography to minors.” Northwest Florida Daily News.

Alachua: School board members are being asked to terminate a contract with two real estate agents who represented the district in a land deal last year in which the board paid twice as much for a property than that property sold for in 2018. Superintendent Carlee Simon said she did not trust the agents to act in the best interests of the school district. WUFT.

Santa Rosa: School board members are being asked to consider having vaping detection devices installed in middle and high schools. A recent national survey showed that 11 percent of high school students vape, and 3 percent of middle school students. Pensacola News Journal. The school district is one of 16 in the state to be named an academically high-performing district for the 2020-2021 school year by the Florida Department of Education. School and district grades from the 2018-2019 school year, financial audits from 2019-2020 and class size compliance in 2020-2021 determine which districts are honored. WEAR. Navarre Press.

Bay: Panama City police said Saturday that recent social media threats being made against Central High School were aimed at a school with that name in St. Joseph, Mo., not the one in Panama City. Several students had contacted police after seeing the threats online. But there will be extra police at the local school today just in case, police officials said. Schools with the same name in St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties are also on alert today. WMBB.

Citrus: At Tuesday’s meeting, the school board will consider a proposal to start a Cambridge Assessment International Education (AICE) program at Citrus High School. AICE is an international program that requires seven credits in math and science, languages and arts and humanities to earn a degree. Students who complete the program automatically qualify for the Florida Academic Scholarship, which pays for books, a summer term and 100 percent of four-year tuition. The startup cost of the program is a $13,000 application fee and $40,000 for the first year. Citrus County Chronicle.

Flagler: Electrocardiograms are being offered to all school district student-athletes, beginning Thursday. The free, voluntary screenings are part of a partnership between AdventHealth and the school district. Health officials said they’ll ask the school board next year to make the screenings mandatory. Flagler Live.

Nassau: A former teacher and tennis coach at West Nassau High School has been arrested after allegedly sending sexually explicit text messages to a student. Deputies said Sheri Braddock, 50, who coached the student, is charged with transmitting harmful materials to a minor. School officials said Braddock resigned near the end of the last school year, when the texts were discovered. WJXT. WJAX.

Colleges and universities: The University of South Florida presidential search committee has announced that it’s slowing down the timeline. Candidates were expected to be interviewed in November, with a president named in January. But now interviews are scheduled to begin in March, after a survey of stakeholders prompted 1,900 responses that revealed a lack of unanimity in what qualities a new president should have. Tampa Bay Times. Carlos Duart, president of a Miami company that has provided engineering, emergency management and medical services to the state, has been appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the Florida International University Board of Trustees. Florida Politics. Polk State College is offering Legoland employees prepaid tuition scholarships. Lakeland Ledger.

Security in schools: More than three years after the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, most people agree that schools are safer. But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chaired the state commission that investigated the Parkland shootings and made recommendations for improvement, acknowledges “that doesn’t mean we’re there, and we’re not there.” He said more improvements are needed in threat assessment and communicating information between schools and law enforcement. Tampa Bay Times.

In the Legislature: Bolstering the state’s “Parents’ Bill of Rights” could be one of the objectives of a special legislative session that Gov. DeSantis is calling for next month. That bill reads, in part: “The state… may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.” School districts have argued that face mask mandates for students are reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest. Florida Phoenix.

Around the nation: A Food and Drug Administration analysis suggests the Pfizer vaccine “highly effective” among children 5 to 11 years old, and that the benefits of getting the shot outweigh the risks. The agency’s independent vaccine expert committee votes Tuesday whether to recommend authorization. New York Times. Associated Press. Scientists are struggling to identify what causes multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children who get infected with COVID-19. About 5,200 of the 6.2 million children diagnosed have developed the disease, which consists of fever, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, bloodshot eyes, rash and dizziness two to six weeks after infection. WUSF. Education experts say already vulnerable students are the ones most affected by disruptions in schooling during the pandemic. Associated Press. Only about 1 percent of the nation’s school buses are electric, but there are growing signs that could change soon. Associated Press.

Opinions on schools: Florida needs a new education commissioner. The lowlights of Richard Corcoran’s tenure have centered around endangering students and their families with the coronavirus, bullying public school administrators and school board members and eroding the state’s already mediocre stature in public education circles. Palm Beach Post. Gov. DeSantis, who had zero tolerance for protesters in 2020 when the cause was racism and police brutality, is giving a full-throated defense to protesters targeting school boards in 2021. Orlando Sentinel. The district’s mask mandate makes sense, but the incivility it has invoked does not. Palm Beach County School Board chair Frank Barbieri, Palm Beach Post. I worry that the “You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to land a high-paying job” rhetoric that is now surrounding parents and students is going to convince students with real promise to end their education before they have fulfilled their intellectual potential. That would be a real tragedy for the students, their families and our nation. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.