TALLAHASSEE — The Biden Administration further inserted itself into Florida’s mask fight on Friday by offering to pay the salaries of Florida school board members who lose state funds by defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on local K-12 mask mandates.
In a letter to DeSantis and his Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote that school districts stripped of state funding for passing local coronavirus safety measures can use federal relief dollars to replenish the cash. Cardona said he was “deeply concerned” by DeSantis’ efforts preventing schools from requiring students to wear masks amid a surge in Covid infections, and that his agency could reach the schools directly if need be.
“We are eager to partner with [Florida Department of Education] on any efforts to further our shared goals of protecting the health and safety of students and educators,” Cardona wrote. “If FLDOE does not wish to pursue such an approach, the Department will continue to work directly with the school districts and educators that serve Florida’s students.”
DeSantis’ spokeswoman Christina Pushaw on Friday night criticized the White House for wanting to spend funds “on the salaries of superintendents and elected politicians, who don’t believe that parents have a right to choose what’s best for their children, than on Florida’s students, which is what these funds should be used for.”
Cardona’s letter comes the same day as the Florida Department of Education announced an emergency meeting to hash out possible sanctions against school leaders in Alachua and Broward counties, which have enacted stricter student mask mandates than allowed by the DeSantis administration.
The weekslong fight over school mask mandates has consumed Florida ahead of the new in-person school year just as the state is facing a spike in coronavirus infections. Locally, schools are starting to report Covid-19 cases and quarantines in droves. Palm Beach County, for example, this week has sent some 1,020 students home to quarantine as a close coronavirus contact, the local Sun-Sentinel reports.
DeSantis is threatening to hit school leaders with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for breaking the rules — an amount equal to their pay. The Republican governor maintains that masks don’t make enough difference in school-age children to be required through blanket statewide or local policies.
The U.S. Education Department said that DeSantis’ stance against mask mandates, which goes against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for schools, “puts students and staff at risk.” Local school leaders should be allowed to make their own Covid-19 safety rules, Cardona wrote.
“The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote.
Florida landed $7.04 billion from the American Rescue Plan for schools, with the bulk — 90 percent — set aside for local school districts.
The DeSantis administration and school board members have been fighting over school mask mandates and local control for weeks now, a squabble that has caught President Joe Biden’s attention. The U.S. DOE’s intervention could escalate tensions ahead of the emergency meeting next week that could see Florida officials dropping sanctions.