TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The U.S. Department of Education is "deeply concerned" about Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order seeking to ban school mask mandates and is ready to help districts directly, the federal agency said in a letter to the governor Friday.
"Florida’s recent actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts students and staff at risk," U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote to DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
The letter also said President Joe Biden’s administration will work with school districts and educators directly if the Florida Department of Education does not distribute federal pandemic aid to the districts. Cardona wrote that the federal American Rescue Plan Act signed by Biden in March allocated some $7 billion to support Florida schools.
Florida has not submitted a plan to the federal government about how it intends to spend federal relief money earmarked for schools, though the issue is on the agenda for a State Board of Education meeting on Wednesday. Plans were due on June 7.
"In fact, it appears that Florida has prioritized threatening to withhold state funds from school districts that are working to reopen schools safely rather than protecting students and educators and getting school districts the federal pandemic recovery funds to which they are entitled," Cardona said in the letter.
In a separate letter to Florida district superintendents Friday, Cardona wrote that the U.S. Department of Education "stands with you" in enacting universal student mask policies despite the state’s efforts to prohibit them.
Cardona’s letters came on the same day that a second Florida district said it will go against the state’s order that schools allow parents to opt out of student mask policies without citing particular reasons.
The Broward County School Board voted Tuesday to enact an indoor mask requirement for students with exceptions only when parents submit doctors’ notes.
State education officials have argued the mandate violates a Florida Department of Health rule that helped carry out DeSantis’ July 30 executive order against mandatory masks. Corcoran wrote a letter Tuesday to Broward school officials demanding a response "documenting how your district is complying" with the health department rule.
Corcoran’s letter, in part, threatened to withhold funding to school districts "in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board" if the districts moved forward with requiring doctors’ notes.
In a response letter Friday, district officials argued that Broward schools are taking "prudent and responsible measures" to mitigate COVID- 19 with the mask requirement.
The district also contended that it is in compliance with the health department’s rule because students will be able to take off masks when eating, "actively participating in an indoor or outdoor practice or competition," receiving necessary medical care or experiencing trouble breathing.
Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood, who signed the district’s response letter, said local hospitals have been "overwhelmed with new COVID-19 patients."
The school officials also urged Corcoran to "seriously consider the appropriateness" of withholding funds to the district, arguing such a move would "represent a reduction to the general fund allocation and may impact services to students."
The State Board of Education has scheduled an emergency meeting Tuesday "to consider the compliance of school districts, including Broward and Alachua" with the health department rule and a new state law known as the "Parents’ Bill of Rights," according to a notice of the meeting.