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Florida Gov. DeSantis faces growing revolt from school districts imposing mask mandates

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg News)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is facing a revolt from a growing number of school districts — including some of the largest in the country — that have passed tough mask mandates for the new school year despite his administration’s threat to sanction them.

On Wednesday, three districts voted to impose tough masking mandates: Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest in the country; Hillsborough County, the eighth largest; and Palm Beach County, the 10th largest, after a meeting that lasted more than seven hours.

They join Broward County, the sixth largest school district, and Alachua County, which had already approved school mask mandates with only a medical opt-out available for at least some part of the 2021-22 school year.

Wednesday was a tough day for DeSantis in another way as well: President Biden announced that he had ordered Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to take action against governors who have banned mask mandates. Though he did not mention DeSantis by name, the president did say he had called a schools superintendent in Florida to express his support.

Biden orders Education Department to take action against governors who ban school mask mandates

Five Florida school districts — Broward, Alachua, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade — have now approved a mask mandate that allows for a student to opt out only with a note from a medical doctor, which goes well beyond what DeSantis set as policy in a July 30 executive order. He said that school districts must allow parents to decide whether to send their children to school with a mask.

Nearly 40 percent of Florida’s schoolchildren are or will be attending schools with mask mandates — and a few other big school districts are likely to impose their own mandates soon.

Cases of the delta variant of the coronavirus are skyrocketing in the state, setting records for seven-day case averages. Thousands of students in school districts that have already started the new year are in quarantine, and pediatric cases are on the rise.

That did not deter the Florida Board of Education, which is aligned with DeSantis, from determining Tuesday that Broward and Alachua school districts had violated state law by imposing mask mandates and voting to consider sanctions. Those could include, according to Board Chairman Tom Grady, having the state remove school district leaders and school board members from their positions.

The DeSantis administration has used threats of defunding school districts before. Hillsborough was threatened last year by the DeSantis administration with the loss of millions of dollars in state funding when it planned to open the 2020-21 school year remotely. The governor wanted all districts to open in person five days a week. The debt-ridden district relented.

President Biden ordered his Education Department on Aug. 18 to explore legal actions against governors who have blocked mask mandates in schools. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

During Wednesday’s school board meeting, Hillsborough schools superintendent Addison Davis urged the school board not to institute a mask mandate and said Hillsborough cannot “withstand” a loss of state funding. The Hillsborough school board approved a mask mandate anyway.

DeSantis, who is seeking a second term as governor in November 2022, has made “parental choice” the center of his education agenda, expanding the use of public funds to allow parents to send their children to private and religious schools, and now giving them the right to make masking decisions. Critics say his intent is to destabilize the public education system.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people 2 years and older wear masks indoors to help stem the spread of the delta variant. DeSantis and his allies in Florida have accused the Biden administration of playing politics with masking issues. On Wednesday, Biden said that masking mandates have nothing to do with politics but are safety measures to protect children.

At Tuesday’s Florida Board of Education meeting, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried railed at the board members during a comment period, saying: “Shame on all of you. How embarrassing that you may be 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.”

After DeSantis threatened to withhold funding to districts that go against his orders, he pulled back and instead said he might withhold the salaries of superintendents and other school leaders that defy him. The Biden administration then wrote to DeSantis saying federal funds could be available to school administrators who faced repercussions from the state.

This isn’t the first time the DeSantis administration has considered firing local school leaders. In 2019, DeSantis threatened to remove members of the Broward County school board after it supported Superintendent Robert Runcie, whom the governor wanted to fire but lacked the authority to do so.

(Runcie quit earlier this year after a DeSantis-generated grand jury investigating security failures at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — where a gunman killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018 — indicted the superintendent on a single count of perjury. Runcie’s lawyers said the indictment was politically motivated.)

On Wednesday, DeSantis filled a vacant seat on the Alachua County school board with an ally. A spokesman for the school board said the governor has the authority to make the appointment, which was made shortly after the Alachua County school board voted to extend its two-week mask mandate for eight more weeks

The seat became vacant after it was discovered that the supervisor of elections had allowed Diyonne McGraw to run for the board in the wrong zone. McGraw was elected in August 2020, giving the board its first Black female majority, but she was forced off the board in June after a complaint was made. She has appealed.

DeSantis filled the vacant seat with Mildred Russell, who started Miracle Life Ministries with her husband in 1990, according to a statement from the governor’s office. They have also started churches in Georgia and England.

Earlier this month, the Florida Board of Education approved a plan to allow parents who did not want their children to be forced to wear a mask in public schools to get a Hope scholarship, a program created to help children bullied in public schools pay to attend private schools.

(Update with governor appointing new Alachua County school board member)