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Biden administration looking for ways to pay Florida educators if DeSantis withholds their salaries over mask mandates

Students return for classes at Hillsborough High School in Tampa on Aug. 10, 2021.
Students return for classes at Hillsborough High School in Tampa on Aug. 10, 2021. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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The Biden administration is examining whether it can direct unused stimulus funds to support educators in Florida who may defy the governor’s order against mask mandates in schools.

The announcement Tuesday was a sharp response to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has threatened to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who defy his executive order banning classroom mask mandates.

Such a move, if it occurred, would be a more aggressive strategy by the White House as coronavirus infections fueled by the delta variant spike across the country, many Americans continue to refuse vaccines, and some high-profile Republicans attack mask requirements and vaccine mandates.

The White House is also considering using the federal government’s spending power to push entities such as long-term-care facilities to require that their employees get vaccinated.

On Tuesday, President Biden took aim particularly at GOP leaders like DeSantis who, he said, deride mask mandates as government overreach but have no problem imposing their own will on local school districts. “I find that totally counterintuitive and frankly disingenuous,” Biden said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is “continuing to look for ways” for “the U.S. government to support districts and schools as they try to follow the science.”

The conflict has escalated as a number of school officials in Florida are moving forward with requiring masks in defiance of DeSantis’s edict. At least four school districts in the state — including Broward County Public Schools, the second-largest in Florida — are pushing back against the governor’s ban.

Psaki praised them Tuesday. “I do want to call out the courage and the boldness of a number of leaders in Florida,” Psaki aid, adding that the educators are “people who are stepping up to do the right thing to protect students and keep schools safe and open.”

To pay the school officials’ salaries, the administration would use coronavirus relief money designated for Florida schools that has remained unspent. A spokeswoman for DeSantis brushed off the White House’s threat.

“It is surprising that the White House would rather spend money for the salaries of bureaucratic 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,” DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske wrote in an email.

Biden and DeSantis have been engaged in a back-and-forth for several days, as Biden has voiced growing impatience with governors who stand in the way of public health rules and DeSantis has said he is defending individual freedom.

Like Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Kristi L. Noem of North Dakota, DeSantis has made a point of speaking out against requiring masks or vaccines even while case numbers in his states soar and hospitals face growing challenges. All three Republicans are viewed as potential presidential contenders who might challenge Biden in 2024.

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Last week, Biden told governors to “get out of the way” if they will not lead in fighting the pandemic, making it clear he was talking in large part about DeSantis and Abbott. DeSantis responded by blasting the president for singling out his state and saying Biden’s policies have allowed illegal immigrants to spread the coronavirus within the United States, a claim for which there is no evidence.

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Biden administration officials are increasingly concerned that the coming school year will be disrupted by the virus, although they continue to say that in-person learning should go forward, with appropriate mitigation such as mask-wearing.

Psaki noted that some money from the federal coronavirus stimulus package intended for Florida schools has not been spent and suggested that that is a pot of money the federal government could use to pay “expenses that come up in this period of time.”

“We’re looking into what’s possible,” Psaki said, adding that “paying for salaries” could be part of a broader federal effort to help teachers and school officials who are trying to protect their students. The Department of Education is leading the discussions on that effort, she said.

Days before the beginning of the school year, DeSantis issued an executive order giving parents, not school districts, the right to decide whether their children wear masks in the classroom.

Fenske noted that Florida has allocated about $1.4 billion of federal stimulus funds for schools so far and warned against using the unspent dollars for unintended uses.

“It would be irresponsible to wastefully rush to spend these dollars before they are needed, as these funds are intended to address the full needs of educational recovery over multiple fiscal years,” Fenske said.

DeSantis has been involved in other coronavirus-related skirmishes in his state. Norwegian Cruise Line recently won a judge’s approval to disregard a Florida law that bans companies from demanding proof of vaccination against the coronavirus.

It will be the first cruise operator to require every person on board in Florida to be fully vaccinated, in defiance of DeSantis, whose office has called the lawsuit “meritless” and the company’s vaccine policy discriminatory.

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