Biden may take legal action against governors who ban school mask mandates

The move is a continuation of weeks of tension between the White House and Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug 18, 2021, on the COVID-19 response and vaccination program. U.S. health officials Wednesday announced plans to offer COVID-19 booster shots to all Americans to shore up their protection amid the surging delta variant and signs that the vaccines' effectiveness is falling. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug 18, 2021, on the COVID-19 response and vaccination program. U.S. health officials Wednesday announced plans to offer COVID-19 booster shots to all Americans to shore up their protection amid the surging delta variant and signs that the vaccines' effectiveness is falling. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published Aug. 19, 2021|Updated Aug. 19, 2021

President Joe Biden on Wednesday said his administration is prepared to take possible legal action against governors who try to prevent local school officials from imposing universal mask mandates, throwing yet another wrench into Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plans to sanction Florida school districts that require students to wear masks.

“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” Biden said at a news conference Wednesday.

Biden paired his statements with a new memorandum that directed the U.S. Department of Education to take additional measures to protect students returning to school, including exploring “possible enforcement actions” against governors who want to prevent schools from following federal guidelines. The Biden administration could intervene if governors threaten to withhold school board members’ salaries, a threat DeSantis’ administration has made.

The move is a continuation of weeks of tension between the White House and Florida’s nationally ascendant Republican governor as the state grapples with one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the nation and a growing number of Florida school districts impose mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s mask orders.

Related: DeSantis to Biden: 'I don't want to hear a blip about COVID from you'

The Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Palm Beach County school boards on Wednesday joined Broward County and Alachua County schools in flouting the state’s orders by requiring students to wear masks unless they have a doctor’s note. The districts’ decisions all but guarantee a clash with DeSantis’ administration as the governor on Wednesday promised “consequences” for their actions.

Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough are the state’s three largest school districts, and Miami-Dade and Broward are in the top 10 nationally in number of students. Palm Beach is the fifth-largest district in Florida.

Florida’s State Board of Education on Tuesday floated the idea of removing school officials from office and withholding the salaries of school board members and superintendents as possible penalties, options DeSantis broadly suggested would be “very appropriate.”

While Biden did not refer to DeSantis by name in his memorandum or during the news conference, he referenced his call last week with Broward County Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and alluded to threats to cut the pay of education leaders.

Related: Biden calls Broward superintendent, says he backs school mask mandate

“If a governor wants to cut the pay of a hard-working education leader who requires masks in the classroom, the money from the American Rescue Plan can be used to pay that person’s salary,” Biden said. “One hundred percent.”

DeSantis, who doubled down Wednesday on his claim that school officials imposing mask mandates are breaking the law, is one of several GOP governors who have clashed with the White House in recent weeks about masks and other COVID-19 strategies. But more than any of his peers, the Florida Republican has drawn the president’s ire.

“Some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures — that is, children wearing masks in school — into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said Wednesday. “Some are even trying to take power away from local educators ... They’re setting a dangerous tone.”

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‘A political landmine’ for DeSantis

The feud has helped elevate DeSantis’ national profile, making him the frequent subject of questions at the White House’s televised daily briefings over the last two weeks, and giving him a platform to fire back at the White House for “politicizing” the issue.

“At the end of the day, you have local officials who do not believe they need to follow the law. That’s what this is about. They are trying to posture it about me, because if you make it about me you get on CNN,” DeSantis said Wednesday at a news conference in Pembroke Pines. “We know that because that’s just how the game is played.”

Related: Inside Fox News, DeSantis is the future of the party. And he's taking advantage.

In turn, the Biden administration has sought to make him an emblem of Republicans’ resistance to mask mandates, publicly siding with Florida school superintendents over the governor, who is widely seen as a potential presidential hopeful in 2024.

“It’s evident that the Biden administration sees Ron DeSantis stepping onto a political landmine around the issue of mask mandates and protecting children in Florida,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster. “Team Biden is not going to pass up an opportunity to sink a potential Republican presidential nominee that they might very well run against.”

The debate over mask-wearing in schools has become a broader political flash point not just in Florida but across the nation, as evidenced by Biden’s decision to intervene in a local matter.

DeSantis’ political arm has been ramping up fundraising efforts as the first-term governor positions himself for re-election in 2022 and eyes a possible run for the White House.

His affiliated political action committee, for example, has been selling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” drink koozies and T-shirts, and regularly sends out fundraising emails vowing to “not allow any lockdowns, school closures, restrictions, or mandates.”

And it’s a debate that has fired up lawmakers of both parties. Led by the White House’s message that DeSantis has been motivated by political concerns, Florida Democrats are increasingly attacking DeSantis’ opposition to school mask mandates as a political choice aimed at winning a future presidential primary, rather than containing the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

“Our governor is running for president,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat from West Palm Beach. “He is playing for the Trump base.”

However, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, another Florida Republican who could mount a presidential run in 2024, argued that Biden’s foray into Florida politics was an attempt to distract from other crises, including the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“It is a lot easier to take cheap shots at Florida than actually lead a country. Instead of calling an interim superintendent here in Florida, perhaps President Biden should have been focused on what was happening on his watch in Afghanistan,” Rubio said in an email hours before Biden made his announcement.

COVID will continue to play a role ahead of 2022

DeSantis has framed the issue as one about “school choice” and “freedom.” Susan McManus, a retired professor of political science at the University of South Florida, said the governor is putting a lot at stake on how parents with children feel about masks in schools, and said his policy decision could end up being a gamble because there are a lot of unknowns about the virus.

When the 2022 election comes around, voters will have their say on the policy decisions.

“Women with children vote for their children’s interest every single time,” said McManus.

Even with Florida on the national stage, DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic is likely to continue to play an outsize role in his home state ahead of the governor’s race in 2022 — and his challengers are watching.

This week, gubernatorial hopefuls U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried made early attacks on DeSantis’ threats to schools requiring masks. On Tuesday, Crist released a statewide television ad saying the governor wanted to “defund schools where they’re asking kids to wear a mask.”

And Fried, who’s been holding regular press conferences around the state to talk about the latest COVID-19 case updates, called into the closely watched State Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

“Shame on all of you,” Fried told board members. “How embarrassing that you are more afraid of the governor than you are for the lives of our children and teachers who are already getting sick and dying in record numbers.”

Bianca Padró Ocasio reported from Miami, Ana Ceballos reported from Tallahassee and Bryan Lowry reported from Washington, D.C. McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.