FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (WSVN) - Federal investigators have launched a civil rights probe into Florida’s mask mandate ban on the same day an appeals court ruled in favor of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policy that lets parents decide whether or not their children will wear face coverings in the classroom.
The announcement of the investigation and court ruling come as Broward County Public Schools officials said they intend to keep enforcing their mask mandate despite the appeals court’s ruling.
BCPS Interim Superintendent Dr. Vickie Cartwright confirmed the district’s decision during a news conference held Friday.
“We will continue to implement our current face covering policy,” she said. “This is helping us to mitigate COVID-19 and what is occurring within our schools.”
Hours later, the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran informing him of the investigation into the ban.
At issue for federal investigators is whether allowing parents to opt out of wearing masks poses a risk for children with disabilities or who might otherwise be more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
The letter states, “[Federal law] guarantees qualified students with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education.”
Investigators are attempting to determine whether or not the governor’s rule that lets parents opt out of mask use is discriminatory.
The letter states that the Civil Rights Office would like to know “whether … students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 are prevented from safely returning to in-person learning, in violation of federal law.”
Friday morning, DeSantis was handed a victory over the Broward County School Board when the District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee ruled that he can punish local boards for mandating masks in schools, as the case makes its way through the courts.
In a tweet, the governor wrote about the ruling, “No surprise here … I will continue to fight for parents’ rights.”
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said DeSantis’ office appears to be politicizing a health matter.
“Here we have a political-legal volleyball game going on where kids, frankly, are the ball, and that should not be the case,” he said.
Friday’s ruling overturns Florida Circuit Judge John Cooper’s decision on Wednesday that the governor had to stop sanctioning local officials.
“We are in a pandemic. The evidence shows that; there’s no dispute about that,” said Cooper. “We have a variant that’s more infectious and more dangerous to children.”
Following Wednesday’s circuit court ruling, DeSantis’ office filed an emergency appeal, and the appeals panel in Tallahassee found that the governor’s ban on mandates should remain in place for now and that there are issues the judges feel could lead the governor to ultimately prevail.
“If the mask mandate goes away, I anticipate that we will not be able to operate schools, because so many people would get impacted with COVID,” said Dr. Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward County School Board.
The court ruling happens as a teacher assistant died due to COVID-19 complications, bringing the number of Broward educators who have passed away from the virus in the current school year to four.
There is also a parallel case regarding mask mandates on behalf of Broward, Alachua and Orange counties.
BCPS officials said they are also trying to appeal to DeSantis’ administration to provide some sort of mechanism that would enable them to receive what they described as up to hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-related federal funding earmarked for schools.
“It was bipartisan. It’s been made available through Trump and Biden,” said Cartwright. “This is not political; this is, we need help.”
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