TALLAHASSEE — President Joe Biden on Friday night called Broward County Schools interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright to say he supports the district’s staying the course on mask mandates in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order, and reiterated his administration stands ready to send resources to ensure a safe return to in-person learning.
The call came on the same day that his administration said federal relief funds could be used to offset any financial penalties that DeSantis’ administration may levy against districts for having a mask mandate, escalating the rhetoric around the issue since the governor’s actions on mask mandates.
At the direction of the governor, the State Board of Education and the Florida Department of Health have imposed rules that said districts must give parents full power to opt out of mask orders. Two of Florida’s 67 school districts — Broward County Public Schools and Alachua County Public Schools — have defied those orders by requiring a doctor’s note and are facing possible financial penalties. Miami-Dade County Public Schools is set to decide on its policy next week before its classes begin on Aug. 23.
In the call, Biden told Cartwright that he commended her “leadership and courage to do the right thing for the health and well-being of their students, teachers, and schools,” according to a summary of a call provided to the Miami Herald by the White House.
Biden also called Arizona Union High School District Superintendent Chad Geston, who defied a ban on mandates imposed by that state’s legislature, on Friday night.
No leaders from Alachua County Public Schools were called, according to the White House.
In the separate calls, Biden said his administration “stands ready to support their school districts and communities to get back to safe, full-time, in-person learning.”
He mentioned the American Rescue Plan and said his administration’s policies will ensure “every school has the resources and guidance needed to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Earlier Friday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told DeSantis, Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran and the Florida Association of School Administrators that school districts would be able to use federal relief funds to replace any penalties imposed by DeSantis’ administration against districts with mask order.
He said in a letter that they would be allowed to tap into 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.
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
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.” Those penalties would amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars for each district.
Biden’s decision to call a local school superintendent was indicative of his personal engagement in his administration’s growing public push back against DeSantis’ masking orders.
DeSantis has pushed back when Biden criticized Florida’s response to the pandemic as millions students across the state return to in-person classes. He also remains adamantly opposed to mask mandates, which he said are “anti-science” and based on studies that are “completely unsubstantiated.”
Amid a recent surge in coronavirus cases across the nation, including Florida, which has become the nation’s hotspot for the virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that everyone, regardless of their vaccination status, wear masks indoors in K-12 schools.
DeSantis says the decision of whether a kid uses a mask in school or not is up to parents. He has framed it as an issue of “choice” and “freedom.”
McClatchy White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.