Biden administration pressures Florida Gov. DeSantis over school mask policies

President ‘stands with these dedicated educators,’ Ed secretary writes

By: - August 16, 2021 3:45 pm

Joe Biden. Screenshot: YouTube

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has written Gov. Ron DeSantis saying that if his administration withholds state funding from school districts that enact mask mandates, those schools can use federal coronavirus relief dollars to make up for the penalties.

In a letter to DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote Friday that he was “deeply concerned” that the DeSantis administration was preventing school districts from adopting mask policies consistent with health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In fact, it appears that Florida has prioritized threatening to withhold state funds from school districts that are working to reopen schools safely rather than protecting students and educators and getting school districts the federal pandemic recovery funds to which they are entitled,” Cardona wrote, referencing threats to slash superintendent and school board member salaries in districts that enact mask mandates without an opt-out option.

Two districts — Broward County Public Schools and Alachua County Public Schools — so far have defied the governor’s order, with mask policies that do not allow parents and students to opt out without a doctor’s note.

The Florida Board of Education has called an emergency meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss  noncompliance by the two districts.

Cardona said in his letter that the federal Department of Education “stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”

He added that money for schools from the American Rescue Plan enacted earlier this year can be used to keep schools operating and maintain salaries for local educators and staffers.

That includes paying salaries of school district employees if the DeSantis administration withholds funding, Cardona wrote.

On July 30, DeSantis posted an executive order to protect a parents’ right to “direct the upbringing, education, health care, or mental health” of their students, according to the Florida Phoenix. The executive order prohibits school districts from infringing on that right, including mask mandates.

Asked for comment on Cardona’s letter, a spokesman for DeSantis said the federal government cannot pay the salaries of superintendents and school boards, and blasted the CDC’s guidance to schools as in conflict with guidelines from the World Health Organization.

“Given the lack of evidence for mask mandates, and the fact that the CDC seems to be an outlier, it seems fair to allow parents to make their own decisions about their own children — and that’s what Gov. DeSantis stands for,” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in an email Monday.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Florida Phoenix. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.