Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | December 16, 2021
Florida paid back Orange County Public Schools the money it withheld when the school district bucked state rules and imposed a mask mandate on students.
The state sent $31,459 to the district in late November, an amount equivalent to the monthly salaries of the eight members of the Orange County School Board.
The state withheld the money after the school board required students to wear face masks at school during a surge in COVID-19 cases early in the academic year. The district dropped the mandate starting Nov. 1.
Board members still got paid during the month when OCPS received less state money, said Michael Ollendorff, a school district spokesperson, in an email.
State rules, pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, forbid schools from requiring face masks unless parents can opt-out their children from such mandates. But Orange and many of Florida’s other large school districts decided mask mandates were needed to help keep students and staff safe as the number of COVID-19 cases on campuses climbed.
Their decisions prompted lawsuits, rule challenges and fierce debate. President Joe Biden’s administration, which supported mask mandates, entered the fray, offering financial help through federal grants to districts that lost state money.
The State Board of Education voted in October to withhold money from Orange and seven other districts, deciding they all failed to comply with state rules. It had previously voted to take money from the Alachua and Broward school districts, the first two in the state to impose mask mandates.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said districts with mask mandates committed a “blatant violation” of state law and deserved a financial penalty.
OCPS started applying for a federal grant to make up for lost state money but withdrew its application once the state money was sent on Nov. 29, Ollendorff said.