Sarasota becomes first Trump county to defy DeSantis on school masks

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Sarasota county is home to Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters. Sarasota’s board became the sixth in Florida to mandate masks and the first in a GOP-county to defy state laws | AP Photo/Steve Cannon

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TALLAHASSEE — After a heated marathon meeting, Sarasota County school officials voted Friday night to require students to wear masks in schools, a blow to Gov. Ron DeSantis that comes in a heavily Republican-leaning region of the state.

By a 3-2 vote that came late Friday night, Sarasota’s board became the sixth in Florida to mandate masks and the first in a GOP-county to defy state laws blocking local Covid-19 requirements. Parents and local residents showed up in droves to protest the decision, telling the board they were “disgusted” and “mad as heck” over their “medical tyranny” during a tense five-hour meeting where multiple people were kicked out for disruptions.

“My fear is that if we do not do this, if we do not put some teeth into this, do not stand up for this and our right to make that decision, we will be making the wrong decision,” said board member Jane Goodwin.

Sarasota, a district enrolling nearly 43,000 students, joins Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Alachua counties in breaking rules crafted by the DeSantis administration to prevent local schools from requiring masks for students. Together, more than 1 million students attend Florida schools that are under mask mandates against the wishes of the Republican governor, who wants parents to have the ultimate say on face coverings.

Until Friday, the districts that are bucking the state by requiring students to wear masks in schools were Democratic-leaning and voted for President Joe Biden over Donald Trump. Sarasota marks an outlier as the first GOP county — one where Trump scored 54.8 percent of the vote — to pass a mask mandate. The county is home to Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters.

In Sarasota, school leaders said that the recent influx of Covid-19 cases and quarantines spurred by the Delta variant is putting a strain on district resources, particularly in custodial services, food services and transportation. On top of that, the district is getting hit with more coronavirus cases than it can track and contact trace, school officials told the board.

Sarasota as of Friday reported that 247 students were positive for Covid-19 and isolating, along with 62 staff members. There are also currently 497 students contact-traced and quarantined and 19 staff members, according to the district’s dashboard.

Still, Sarasota schools superintendent Brennan Asplen advised the board to allow students to opt out of wearing masks, urging them to “make sure we are careful not to break the law.”

Board member Bridget Ziegler, the wife of Florida GOP vice chair Christian Ziegler, agreed, saying that she didn’t want to split from the DeSantis administration and open the district up to sanctions from the state.

“I’m highly concerned that we would be adopting something that many on this board have recognized is against the law,” Ziegler said.

The vast majority of speakers at Friday’s emergency board meeting opposed a blanket mask mandate and instead pushed for an opt-out clause, as required by state law. Some parents pledged to disobey any mask requirement propped up by the school district.

At one point, board chair Shirley Brown played a video from “Good Morning America” explaining the benefits of wearing masks, prompting someone in the audience to yell “bull—-” and get tossed from the meeting. Brown frequently rapped her gavel to quiet the crowd, attempting to stop audience members from laughing and cheering on speakers. Brown called a recess on multiple occasions to quell the the audience.

A parent group that opposes mask mandates, Moms for Liberty, described the meeting as “tyranny on display.”

By requiring masks, Sarasota school board members opened themselves to sanctions from the state Board of Education, which just hours before the vote handed down the first penalties to disobedient districts. Sarasota's policy calls for the mask mandate to be rescinded if the county positivity rate falls below 8 percent for three consecutive days. The positivity rate in Sarasota the week of Aug. 13 came in at 18.6 percent, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health.

The state board gave school leaders in Broward and Alachua counties 48 hours to reverse their mask requirements, or else the Florida Department of Education is cleared to slowly bleed the pay of local school board members who voted to mandate masks.

The Biden administration said last week that school districts could use federal Covid-19 relief to backfill school budgets that get slashed for requiring face coverings, a move that seemed to soften the possible blow of losing state cash over mandates.

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