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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration told two districts Monday that he would withhold funding from them equal to school board members’ salaries, making good on a threat to strip schools of funding if they required masks during the state’s worst spike in COVID-19 cases among children so far.
Florida Education commissioner Richard Corcoran sent notices Monday to the districts in Broward and Alachua Counties—which account for more than 300,000 students combined, according to US News and World Report—saying mask requirements “violate parental rights” by not allowing students to opt out of wearing masks, and that the state would withhold funds from the districts until they complied.
The withholding of funds comes even after a judge in Florida ruled last week that DeSantis’ executive order was “without legal authority” and that school boards could issue mask mandates, siding with a group of parents who sued the governor. The administration has vowed to appeal.
“We’re going to fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children. They know what is best for their children,” Corcoran said in a statement. “What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”
Dr. Vickie Cartwright, the interim superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, issued a statement Tuesday saying that the district believes it’s in compliance with DeSantis’ order.
“The health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff continue to be our main priorities,” Cartwright said in a statement to VICE News. “As such, BCPS will continue to mandate masks, knowing the data shows they help minimize the spread of COVID-19 in our schools. As previously stated, this decision will be reviewed by the school board after Labor Day as conditions may change and modification may be appropriate.”
Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco backed her district’s board, saying they were being “penalized for doing the right thing.”
“Their behavior is reckless and is an affront to the decent school board members who are doing everything they can to minimize the transmission of the virus and its Delta variant,” Fusco said of DeSantis and Corcoran. “What tragedy will it take for the governor to stop playing his games?”
Cartwright’s counterpart in Alachua County, Dr. Carlee Simon, sent a letter to Corcoran Monday citing the judge’s order and saying the district was in compliance with the order. “Given that the School Board of Alachua County does not have an unlawful face mandate covering policy, we do not have anything to report,” Simon said in the letter.
The fight over masks in schools has reached a fever pitch, even in Florida, where more people are now hospitalized than at any other point in the pandemic. On Monday, after the superintendent of Lee County Public Schools announced a mask mandate, a fistfight broke out on live television after the school board meeting.
Even as Florida’s case numbers have progressively worsened, DeSantis has continued to oppose mitigation strategies, first by reopening his state before most others around the country, then by banning “vaccine mandates.” Now, he’s not only opposing masks in schools, but preventing local officials from making those decisions entirely. While DeSantis’s strategy has made him a star in the Republican Party, the results for his state have been disastrous. Florida currently has the nation’s second-highest COVID-19 death rate.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education launched investigations into five states that, like Florida, have banned local school officials from requiring masks in schools, on the basis that they violate the rights of students with disabilities and underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID. The five states are Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah.
“It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” Education Secretary Dr. Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
“The Department will fight to protect every student's right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”