WASHINGTON — Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Wednesday called a new Florida rule restricting schools from requiring students to quarantine after having a direct exposure to COVID-19 “dangerous” and “irresponsible.”
The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights earlier this month launched an investigation into Florida’s prohibition on school mask mandates, which could potentially lead to a loss of federal funds if a civil rights violation is found.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has shown no sign of backing down on the mask policy. Last week, newly appointed Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo issued a new rule that also restricts schools from requiring students to quarantine after possible COVID exposures if they’re asymptomatic, leaving the decision up to the parents.
Cardona said the new quarantine rule would put other students at risk. “Of course, it’s dangerous. It’s irresponsible in my opinion,” he said in an interview with McClatchy.
Cardona said his department has closely tracked the impact of masks and other mitigation policies so far this school year. He said that these mitigation strategies have enabled the overwhelming majority of students in the country to safely return to in-person learning.
“With vaccinations and quarantining and masking, students are able to have uninterrupted learning. So now you throw politics into the mix and you see sadly that in Florida there are more children in hospitals, the spread is greater, in many areas it doesn’t seem contained,” Cardona said.
DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw dismissed criticism from the nation’s education leader.
“Secretary Cardona is not a medical doctor and should refrain from making derogatory comments about the policies enacted by our state surgeon general, who is a medical doctor,” Pushaw told the Miami Herald in a statement.
She said that cases in Florida have declined by 63 percent since Aug. 22. “This is yet more evidence that schools and universities aren’t major drivers of community spread, and therefore, there is no justification to deny students in-person education,” Pushaw said.
The Department of Education has announced investigations into seven states — Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Iowa, Tennessee, Utah and Oklahoma — related to state bans on school mask mandates to determine whether those policies violate the civil rights of immunocompromised students.
“We have children with medical issues. We have children who are going through cancer treatment and their body is weaker, weaker immune system, who are not able to access in-person learning at the same level due to these bans on universal masking,” Cardona said.
“And we believe that there are students who are being affected more than others and we’re going to investigate to see if the behaviors and actions of some leaders are preventing students from accessing public education, which to me is the most fundamental right of students,” he said.
Cardona said possible repercussions for states include the department withholding federal education funds. But that is an option he said he hopes to avoid because it would punish students more than governors.
“Ultimately, if I hold back funds, federal funds, which we can do, it affects students. We want to support students, not affect them more, but we do reserve the right to withhold funds if necessary,” he said.
Cardona’s department is currently providing grants to school districts who face financial penalties for defying state prohibitions on mask requirements.
The department Tuesday awarded $420,957 to the Broward County Public Schools after DeSantis’ administration cut funding for the school board because of the district’s mask requirement.
The Florida Board of Education will meet next week to determine whether 11 districts have violated the new state rules on masks and quarantines which could lead to possible financial penalties.
Cardona has expressed support for schools requiring eligible students, ages 12 and older, to get vaccinated. However, he said he didn’t think the Education Department would have a role in mandating vaccinations or offering financial grants to districts for requiring student vaccinations.
“I think those decisions are best left to the states,” he said.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told McClatchy this week that school districts that have not followed the CDC guidance on masking have experienced a “3.5-fold increase in school-related outbreaks.”
The Biden administration urges school districts to enact mask requirements “because we know it works to prevent pediatric cases and to keep our kids in school,” she said.
Cardona, a former elementary school teacher and principal, repeatedly highlighted the importance of in-person instruction, which he said was at stake in the standoff over COVID-19 mitigation. He said 96 percent of school districts have returned to in-person learning.
During a visit to New Jersey in the spring he said he met a first-grade teacher who had to teach her students to look at each other because they were so used to only looking at a computer screen.
“The impact that it has most on elementary students in my opinion is the social piece,” Cardona said. “How to share, how to take turns, how to do those things that we take for granted in the upper levels.”
A December 2020 study from McKinsey & Company found that U.S. students cumulatively experienced a learning loss of five to nine months during the pandemic.
The achievement gap along racial and economic lines, a long-standing problem in education, also worsened during the pandemic. The study found that the learning loss was more severe for students of color with an estimated loss of six to 12 months because Black and Hispanic students were “less likely to have access to the prerequisites of learning — devices, internet access, and live contact with teachers.”
Legislation that passed earlier this year included $122 billion for K-12 schools. Cardona’s department has encouraged schools to use those funds to address last year’s loss of instructional time and historical inequities.
“We must come back and reopen schools in a manner that’s different from March 2020 because that’s a low bar. We have to address the inequities more directly,” Cardona said.
“We’ve never had as much funds in education,” he said. “We’ve never had a moment as close to this one where we can hit reset on the things that didn’t work, so we have to be bold. We have to be innovative. We have to make sure we’re addressing these gaps boldly.”
Miami Herald reporter Ana Ceballos and McClatchy White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.