The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida issues financial penalties to school districts with mask mandates

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is engaged in a tug-of-war with the Biden administration over mask mandates in schools amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The tug of war between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Biden administration over mask mandates in schools escalated Thursday when the state Board of Education voted unanimously to penalize school districts that continue to require masks, a move the U.S. Department of Education warned could be illegal.

The board found that eight districts were not in compliance with a new state law on parental rights and that they violated a recent state health department rule that says students exposed to the coronavirus cannot be ordered to quarantine if they are asymptomatic.

School board members in the eight districts will have their salaries withheld. That’s already happened in Alachua and Broward counties — the first districts to defy DeSantis and implement mask mandates. But the combined amount withheld — over $500,000 for both districts, according to officials — was replaced with grants from the U.S. Education Department. President Biden said last month that Supporting America’s Families and Educators (SAFE) grants will restore 100 percent of pay for school workers who are punished for “doing the right thing.”

On Thursday, Florida’s Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the state won’t stand for what he called federal interference. The state Board of Education members agreed and said any money sent to school districts under the Biden administration’s SAFE Grants will mean an equal amount to be withheld by the state.

“What we are witnessing in these projects, the SAFE Grants, is one of the most egregious violations of the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Florida sovereignty in our lifetimes,” Corcoran said. “By their own terms, these grants encourage school districts to violate Florida law … if the federal government can simply backfill or buy off school districts with grants, then the state’s enforcement authority is neutralized, nullified and abolished.”

The U.S. Education Department sent a letter to Corcoran on Thursday warning that the federal agency was watching and that the state’s effort to increase penalties to school districts with mask mandates could be illegal and may violate federal law about how public school districts get funds from the state.

The funding fight is the latest development in the ongoing clash between the Biden and DeSantis administrations over how to address coronavirus concerns in schools. Mask mandates have been at the center of contentious school board meetings across the state, some of which turned violent. DeSantis has said that only parents have the right to order their children to wear masks, but more than half of the state’s students live in counties where mask mandates are in place.

More than two dozen parents called in to speak to the education board meeting Thursday, most of them against mask mandates, and many from the same group called Moms for Liberty. The few pro-mask parents who called in were often cut off by board chairman Tom Grady because he said they were not speaking about the law.

“Please God, hold these people accountable and remove them if need be,” one parent from Palm Beach County said about the school board officials who issued mask mandates.

The superintendents were each given five minutes to speak, and they all said they were in compliance with Florida law and the wishes of their local communities.

They said an alarming number of coronaviruscases and deaths among staff and students when schools opened in August compelled them to issue the mask mandates. School reopenings in Florida coincided with a deadly summer surge in cases from the delta variant of the virus.

“By the end of the first week and a half of school, it became evident that to keep our children safe and our schools open, we had to make a change,” said Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna. “Our daily student positivity numbers more than doubled any single school day from the previous year. The number of students being placed in quarantine was in the hundreds. And one of our elementary schools was struggling with the tragic death of a third grade student from covid-19.”

Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said the state was “tying the hands of school officials who are dealing with a highly transmissible and potentially life threatening virus.”

She said both rules — against masks and quarantining exposed students — threaten students.

“Unfortunately, the new rule is even worse. It’s careless and dangerous and actually increases the risk of spreading covid,” Simon said. “Regrettably, it seems that our surgeon general has prioritized support for the governor’s political agenda over the health and safety of the citizens of Florida, including our children.”

The DeSantis administration has clashed with the Biden administration frequently and publicly since schools reopened. Last month, the U.S. Education Department announced a civil rights investigation into the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools, saying it could harm students with disabilities.

A statement from the governor’s office this week called that “a fictitious civil rights investigation against Florida because of our lawful fight against elected school boards.”