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Florida Gov. DeSantis threatens to hold school leaders’ pay if they require masks: ‘Financial consequences’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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As students in many Florida counties headed back to school Monday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to stop paying superintendents and school board members who defy his executive order banning classroom mask mandates.

In a statement Monday, DeSantis said district-level officials who implement covid-19 policies requiring masks for students could be subject to “financial consequences.”

“For example, the State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law,” said the statement from DeSantis’s office to CBS Miami and other news outlets.

The debate over mask mandates has grown even more contentious this summer as parents prepare to send their children back to school while coronavirus cases rise and new variants proliferate. In North Carolina, parents in Buncombe County attempted to “overthrow” the school board after its members voted to require masks indoors and on buses. One superintendent in Ohio told The Washington Post he knew of colleagues who had hired armed security guards to protect their homes because they feared retribution over school covid safety measures.

In Florida, the governor has attempted to prevent local school officials from requiring masks for students. Mere days before the beginning of the school year, DeSantis on July 30 issued an executive order giving parents, not school districts, the right to ultimately decide whether their children wear masks in the classroom. The governor’s order says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which recommends universal masking inside K-12 schools, “lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.”

Politicians and experts are weighing options to impose mask protocols and local vaccine mandates to effectively curb spread of coronavirus. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

Masks and covid-19: Explaining the latest guidance from the CDC and other experts

Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said on Twitter that any financial penalties imposed for violating the executive order would not affect students or teachers.

“There are no plans to cut funding for kids and teachers. Only possible penalties for those officials who made the decision to violate the rules,” she tweeted.

Despite the governor’s executive order, many of Florida’s largest school districts voted in recent weeks to implement mask mandates, although most of the policies include provisions allowing parents to opt their children out of the requirements. Pushaw said school officials in those districts would be unlikely to face penalties.

“It’s more problematic when they require doctors notes to opt out because it should be the parent’s choice,” she said on Twitter.

At least two Florida school districts have enacted policies that do so. The superintendents of Leon and Alachua counties have said parents must submit a doctor’s note explaining why their child should not be required to wear a mask in school.

Superintendent Rocky Hanna in Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee, said Monday that the governor’s threats of financial retribution would not force him to reconsider the district’s mask mandate.

“You can’t put a price tag on someone’s life, including my salary,” Hanna said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Andrew Spar, president of the state’s teachers union, the Florida Education Association, disavowed DeSantis’s threats.

“We’ve got a governor who’s playing politics, quite honestly. He’s playing the politics of division, trying to keep our local school boards from doing what they want,” Spar said Monday night on #RolandMartinUnfiltered, a daily webcast.

In a Monday op-ed for The Post, Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon said the local board’s decision to require masks in the classroom — at least for the first two weeks of school — is necessary “to start the academic year safely.”

“After all,” she wrote, “we want what DeSantis wants: to keep schools open and our kids in the classroom.”

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