US education secretary ‘deeply concerned’ about DeSantis’ mask order

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona raised the idea of using federal relief funds for any districts that get state sanctions for having mask mandates.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday. [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published Aug. 13, 2021|Updated Aug. 14, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — The Biden administration on Friday said federal relief funds could replace any financial penalties that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration levies against school districts that impose mask mandates in defiance of state orders.

It’s the latest tit-for-tat between the White House and the nationally ascendant Republican governor who has made punishing school districts that institute mask mandates for students a top-tier priority in his pandemic response as millions of kids return to school in Florida.

Two of Florida’s 67 school districts — Broward County Public Schools and Alachua County Public Schools — have defied the governor’s mask orders by requiring a doctor’s note before parents can opt their children out of the districts’ mask mandates. Broward County affirmed its decision to require masks in a letter to the state on Friday. The Florida Department of Education has called an emergency meeting for next week to discuss potential penalties for the two districts.

Related: Some schools buck DeSantis mask mandate ban amid threats of pay cuts to officials

Miami-Dade County, the state’s largest school district and the fourth largest in the nation, doesn’t start classes until Aug. 23 and has not yet announced its masking policy.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in a letter that he was “deeply concerned” that Florida imposed rules “prohibiting school districts from adopting universal masking policies consistent with CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance.”

“The department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote.

DeSantis pushed back against Cardona’s letter, which the governor’s office said was based on the “assertion that forced masking of children is a good thing.”

“This is completely unsubstantiated, and we are disappointed that the federal government is sacrificing science for their political agenda,” the governor’s communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in a statement.

DeSantis’ office, which said the governor wants school officials to dock their own pay if the state imposes financial penalties, added that Cardona’s decision would “prioritize the salaries of politicians over students, parents and teachers.”

“School board members and superintendents who break the law should be held accountable for their own decisions,” Fenske said.

All school board members are elected but in 29 Florida counties, including Alachua and Broward, superintendents are not.

Cardona also wrote a letter to the Florida Association of School Administrators on Friday. In the letter, he emphasized the importance of in-person instruction, safely reopening schools and their role in health policy.

“As I have said before, our actions as leaders will either help our students be in school and be safe, or our decisions will hurt students,” Cardona said. “Through no fault of Florida’s educators, I am deeply concerned about your state leaders’ actions to date.”

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Cardona added that DeSantis’ approach to masking in schools “needlessly puts students, families, and educators at risk.”

Cardona said the U.S. Department of Education would allow Florida school districts to use federal relief funds to replace any financial penalties imposed by the state.

Federal relief funds in the mix

Cardona says school districts would be able to use funds from a $7 billion pot of money that the Florida Legislature allocated for K-12 schools for the upcoming academic year and beyond. The money was part of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package.

Among the allowable uses for the federal dollars, Cardona said, are “activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.”

Cardona said that includes the salaries of educators, including superintendents, “regardless of whether the state moves to withhold some of their salary as Florida is threatening.”

In Florida, Corcoran has warned Alachua and Broward public school officials that if they do not change their mask policies, he may recommend the State Board of Education withhold funds “in an amount equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”

The warnings were made about a week after DeSantis signed an executive order instructing his departments of education and health to create rules protecting parents’ ability to decide whether kids would wear face coverings at school or not. He framed the issue as one of “choice” and “freedom.”

In that order, DeSantis broadly stated that disobedient school districts could lose state funding. If they did not comply, he wrote, the State Board of Education would have the authority to “withhold the transfer of state funds, discretionary grant funds, discretionary lottery funds, or any other funds specified as eligible for this purpose by the Legislature until the school district complies” and declare them “ineligible for competitive grants” until they comply.

Then on Monday, DeSantis’ office narrowed its focus to the salaries of superintendents and school board members only. His office pushed back when critics said the order called on “schools being defunded” and said that the intent was to only target the pay of school officials, something that was not specified in the order.

DeSantis’ press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said financial consequences for noncompliant districts would be “narrowly tailored to address the offense committed.” On Monday, Pushaw also posted on Twitter that the penalties would only apply to the salaries of superintendents and school board members, though on Wednesday she acknowledged the state can’t legally take away their pay. Pushaw added that the governor wants “activist, anti-science” school board members to cut their own pay if the state follows through with withholding hundreds of thousands of dollars from the district. But there is no guarantee that the state sanctions would be applied that way.

Related: DeSantis softens school board salary threats over mask mandates

Pushaw said “it is possible that the officials who are violating the law could decide to take funding from other needs in their own district, in order to pay themselves salaries.”

“It wouldn’t be fair to the students, but it would technically be possible,” Pushaw said.

For Broward public schools, the state’s second-largest school district, that would mean roughly $700,000 cut from its overall $2.6 billion budget for the upcoming school year.

Alachua County Public Schools would be looking at a $300,000 reduction to its roughly $537 million budget for the 2021-22 school year.

Broward and Alachua school officials told Corcoran that the penalties would be a reduction to the districts’ general fund allocations.

Broward Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood asked Corcoran to “seriously consider the appropriateness of withholding funds,” noting that the funding reduction could impact services to students in the district.

Broward staying the course

The vast majority of Florida’s school districts responded by imposing mask-optional policies after the state said mask policies should have an opt-out for parents. Alachua and Broward public schools decided to require a doctor’s note to opt out. Leon County Public Schools had initially defied the state but reversed its policy to mask-optional when the state threatened financial penalties.

Alachua public school officials told Corcoran on Tuesday that they would not change their mask policy, citing a rise in coronavirus cases in the county and the advice of medical experts.

Cartwright and Osgood had until Friday to respond to Corcoran. Corcoran warned the district on Tuesday that the state Department of Education had launched an investigation for “non-compliance.” That same day the Broward School Board voted 8-1 to impose a mask mandate.

In their letter to Corcoran, they said they intended to keep their mask mandate because it is for the “explicit purpose of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 cases in our schools and preventing the unnecessary removal of students from school because of positive cases.”

They cited an increase in local COVID-19 cases over the past three weeks and rising hospitalizations that have left local hospitals “overwhelmed” in their decision to stay the course.

“More alarming is data that reflects that the combined Broward County pediatric ICU is at 93 percent capacity and adult ICU is at 96 percent capacity.”

Cartwright and Osgood said the mask mandate is “particularly important” because it will be hard to socially distance Broward students in schools that will be “returning to 100 percent in-person instruction.”

To back the decision, they cited a provision in the state Constitution that requires the state to provide adequate public education and emphasized the word “safe.” They also said it was a necessary policy to protect over 37,000 students with disabilities.

“A significant number of students with disabilities are students with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and cancer, whose immune systems are stressed or compromised,” they wrote. “These students are at an increased risk of being infected with the COVID-19 virus without the protection of a mask mandate.”

Cartwright and Osgood also note that the Broward School Board is currently a defendant in a complaint, filed by families of students who live with a disability and allege that without a mask requirement it is not safe to send their students back to in-person classes.

Without a mask mandate, school officials argued, the district could be in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“Students educated in the home setting when a public setting is available violates the IDEA. Thus, a mask requirement would facilitate the school board’s role in educating all students within the district,” Cartwright and Osgood wrote.