Anti-mandate bills signed into law, possible end to U.S.-Florida mask fight, masks optional, and more

Bills become laws: Four bills approved Wednesday in a special legislative session were signed into law Thursday by Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor called the bills, primarily aimed at resisting federal vaccine mandates for workers, the “strongest piece of legislation that’s been enacted anywhere in the country,” and showed that Florida is “respecting people’s individual freedoms.” Among other things, the laws allow exemptions for workers from vaccine mandates by businesses, prohibit school districts from imposing mask mandates and allow parents to sue districts that try to require masks, strip the surgeon general of the authority to order vaccinations during an emergency, and authorize the state to begin a process to start a Florida version of the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel. Tallahassee Democrat. Florida Politics. Florida Phoenix. WESH. Reuters. Florida Department of Education.

In the Legislature: A bill has been filed in the Senate that would allow students to enroll part-time in public schools and still be eligible for a Family Empowerment Scholarship to pay for contracted services, including classes. It is sponsored by state Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake. reimaginED. S.B. 980, proposed by state Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, would remove current restrictions to permit out-of-state virtual schools to offer services in the state. reimaginED.

Legal fight disappearing? Since every school district in the state is now considered to be in compliance with Florida’s face mask rules, the U.S. Department of Education indicated it is willing to drop the cease-and-desist petition it recently filed against the state. In return, the state would release the funding it has withheld from districts that were considered to be defying the state’s mask rule. State officials have repeatedly said that once the districts that were penalized start following the rule, the withheld funds would be released. Politico Florida.

Around the state: Shortly after Gov. DeSantis signed the bills approved by the Legislature, the Orange, Duval and Alachua school districts dropped the parental opt-out and made face masks optional for students, a Flagler County School Board member wants the board to reconsider the removal of “equity” from a list of district goals, a U.S. House subcommittee has begun an investigation into the University of Florida’s decision to prohibit three professors from testifying against the state’s interest in a voting rights lawsuit, St. Johns County school officials are asking for community input on how to spend the $22 million the district is getting in federal coronavirus relief aid, and a building at Sanford Middle School in Seminole is being named after the first black woman to attend previously all-white schools in the county. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: School board members re-elected Perla Tabares Hantman as board chair, and Steve Gallon III as vice chair. This is the 14th time Hantman has served as the chair since she was first elected to the board in 1996. Gallon, who was elected in 2016, has been chosen as vice chair three times. Miami Herald.

Broward: School board members elected District 6 member Laurie Rich Levinson as the board’s chair and District 2 member Patricia Good as vice chair at a meeting this week. Miami Herald.

Orange: Face masks are now optional for students in county schools, district officials said Thursday. They cited a new law, signed by Gov. DeSantis earlier in the day, as the reason for the change. Masks will become optional Nov. 29 for adults working in or visiting schools. WKMG. WESH. WOFL.

Palm Beach: Visitors to county public schools will no longer be required to wear masks, district officials announced Thursday. The policy begins today. Masks have been optional for students and employees for several weeks. WPEC.

Duval: Face masks are now optional in all county public schools. Superintendent Diana Greene changed the policy after Gov. DeSantis signed several bills into law Thursday. In an e-mail to district employees, she said, “Today, Governor DeSantis signed into law HB-1 which passed during special session yesterday. The new law specifically applies to school districts, school boards, and superintendents and places restrictions on our ability to require students to wear masks or facial coverings. Specifically, the new law prohibits mask mandates for students and restricts districts from requiring a parent to opt a student out of wearing a mask. This means that effective immediately, parents may still allow their child to voluntarily wear a mask; however, the district can’t require a family to submit an opt-out form. Therefore, all requirements for student opt-outs are immediately terminated.” WJAX. WJXT. WTLV.

Seminole: A building at Sanford Middle School is being named after Ingrid Burton Nathan, who was the first black student to attend a public school in the county. She was a 14-year-old 9th-grader in 1964 who was chosen to integrate schools, she said she was told, because of her fair skin. Nathan, now 72, said she was lonely in schools and dealt with bullying when she went to Seminole High. But she graduated, went to college and spent 40 years teaching Spanish at Lake Brantley and Lake Mary high schools. WKMG.

Collier: School board members are asking the Florida Supreme Court to take the case alleging the board violated the Sunshine Law by allowing committees it appointed to evaluate textbooks to meet secretly in 2017. In September, a three-judge appeals court panel ruled that the school board violated the law because the public wasn’t allowed in the meetings of the committees. News Service of Florida.

St. Johns: Parents, students, teachers and other school employees are being asked to tell the district how it should spend the $22 million it is receiving in federal coronavirus relief aid. A survey was sent out Wednesday, and responses are due by noon on Monday. WJXT.

Sarasota: Samantha Brinton, a behavior specialist who has worked with special-needs children at Oak Park School for the past three years, died unexpectedly on Monday. No cause of death has been released. She was 33. Counselors and district workers have been at the school consoling students and teachers. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: Mobile hiring units will be dispatched around the county by the school district Dec. 2 in an attempt to cut down on the shortage of school bus drivers. During the “Bus Driver Blitz,” buses will be parked at four  schools to encourage people to apply for driving jobs. WKMG.

Leon: A former substitute teacher and his girlfriend have been arrested and accused of child pornography possession and lewd and lascivious exhibition, which involves sexual activity “in the presence of a victim who is less than 16 years of age.” Raymond Rice II, 39, was a sub in district schools in 2020. Tallahassee Democrat.

Alachua: Citing a new state law signed on Thursday, district officials have dropped their face mask mandate to make masks optional. The district sent out the following message to parents: “Earlier today a new state law was signed that blocks public schools in Florida from requiring masks for students. As a result, masks are now optional for all students, and an opt-out form is no longer required for families who do not want their child to wear a mask in school or on a school bus.” Mainstreet Daily News. WCJB. WGFL. An attorney for the school board argued in a court case over the district’s face mask policy that because the district was now in compliance with the state’s rules, the lawsuit was moot. Parents who brought the suit said they didn’t trust the district to stay in compliance without being forced to by a court. Circuit Judge Peter Sieg said he will issue a ruling soon. Gainesville Sun.

Okaloosa: County commissioners have approved the construction of two sidewalks to help children in Niceville and Crestview safely walk and ride bikes to and from school. The sidewalks are expected to be in place by August 2022. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Flagler: School board member Cheryl Massaro, who voted Nov. 2 with the board majority to replace the word “equity” with “student success” in the district’s list of goals, said she has changed her mind and wants a revote. “Part of my reason originally for supporting the change was somewhat – and I take full responsibility – is actually having a little too much knowledge in some topics,” she said. Flagler Live. Board members have re-elected Trevor Tucker as board chair and Colleen Conklin as vice chair. Flagler Live.

Monroe: District officials said they are investigating to find out who wrote racist graffiti on two side-by-side Marathon High School water fountains. One was labeled white and the other colored. Some parents are critical of the school’s reaction, and school board member John Dick urged immediate action. “There have to be severe consequences to put a stop to it immediately,” he said. “Maybe some of it’s in jest, but they have to put a stop to that completely too. I think the consequences should be fast and severe.” Florida Keys Weekly.

Colleges and universities: A U.S. House subcommittee has begun an investigation into the University of Florida’s decision, later rescinded, to prohibit three professors from testifying against the state’s interest in a voting rights lawsuit. “We are concerned that UF is censoring its faculty based on viewpoint, which would set a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of its own commitment to freedom of expression,” the subcommittee wrote in a letter to UF President Kent Fuchs requesting documents. Associated Press. Miami Herald. Tampa Bay Times. Florida’s former surgeon general, Dr. Scott Rivkees, has announced he’s leaving his job as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine as of Jan. 31, 2022. He gave no reason. USA Today Florida Network. For the second straight year, the University of Central Florida cybersecurity competition team has won the U.S. Department of Energy Cyberforce Competition. UCF beat out 119 teams from 105 U.S. universities. Orlando Sentinel.

Opinions on schools: Florida State University needs to revisit its rules that allow professors to have romantic relationships with students  as long as the professor has no supervision or authority over the student. Tampa Bay Times. Gov. DeSantis has now become the nation’s most visible and powerful vaccine resister, railing against “jabs” and “forced injections” and using Floridians as political pawns to pander to Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early-voting states in the next race for the White House. Sun Sentinel. Teachers who left public schools and set up learning pods say they like the development of close relationships and the professional autonomy to shape what, when, and how their students learned. Steven Weiner, The 74. If having a healthy advanced math program is now a sign of robust Republican leadership and the GOP is The Party of Advanced Math, then Florida could use some of that leadership now. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.

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BY NextSteps staff