Biden administration to assist Florida school districts defying DeSantis’ mask order

The U.S. Education Department will allow government-issued relief funds to cover the salaries of school employees whose districts are penalized for implementing mask mandates

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The Biden administration has offered to use federal relief funds to replace financial penalties incurred by Florida K-12 school districts who defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.

DeSantis, who has stood firmly against mask mandates for school-age children, issued Executive Order 21-175 on July 30, “ensuring parents’ freedom to choose” whether or not their children wear masks during in-person instruction this fall. 

In a news release, DeSantis’ communications director Taryn Fenske said the order was issued in response to several local school boards implementing or considering mask mandates after the Biden administration’s “unscientific and inconsistent recommendations that school-aged children wear masks.”

On Friday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent a letter to DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran saying he was “deeply concerned” by DeSantis’ order and that his department would allow penalized school districts and their employees to pay their employees using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.

ESSER’s $13.2 billion in available funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP), a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed by the Biden administration on March 11 to help the economy recover from COVID-19.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona listens to a speaker during a roundtable discussion at Mercy College on June 14, 2021 in the Pelham Bay neighborhood of the Bronx borough in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“I am writing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education (Department) to emphasize the importance of allowing school district leaders to make decisions that ensure safety for their students,” Cardona wrote.

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

Fenske replied in a statement, criticizing the Biden administration’s “assertion that forced masking of children is a good thing,” calling it “completely unsubstantiated” and adding that they are “disappointed that the federal government is sacrificing science for their political agenda.” 

She added that Cardona’s decision would “prioritize the salaries of politicians over students, parents and teachers,” and that “school board members and superintendents who break the law should be held accountable for their own decisions.”

DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw also criticized the White House on Friday 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.”

Also on Friday, the Florida Department of Education announced that an emergency meeting will be held Tuesday at 4 p.m. to discuss potential sanctions for two school districts, Alachua and Broward, that implemented mask mandates for their students. 

The meeting will be the second emergency meeting the board has held regarding mask regulation so far in August, as the Florida Government and White House continue their weekslong back-and-forth over mask mandates for school-age children.

Some Florida schools that have reopened doors to students have already reported several COVID-19 cases. Per the Sun-Sentinel, schools in Palm Beach County sent home roughly 1,020 students this week to quarantine.

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