School districts in Florida can pay their leaders’ salaries with federal funding if Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) follows through on his threat to yank some state aid from districts that mandate masks, the U.S. Department of Education said Friday, as public school systems in states like Florida plan to require mask-wearing despite bans from Republican state officials.
In a letter to DeSantis and Florida’s education commissioner, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the governor’s July executive order banning mask mandates in school districts clashes with public health advice and “puts students and staff at risk.”
Cardona applauded some Florida school districts for defying DeSantis’ order, even though DeSantis threatened earlier this week to withhold state aid covering school board members and superintendents’ salaries in those districts.
If DeSantis pulls funding from those districts, Cardona said they can pay board members and superintendents using their share of congressionally approved Covid-19 relief money allocated to schools, effectively replacing the state aid with federal funds.
Cardona penned a similar letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Friday, criticizing his decision to bar schools and local governments from mandating masks, and noting that local education bodies that have received federal funds under the American Rescue Plan can use that money for contact tracing and to implement mask policies.
Abbott and DeSantis’ offices did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“The Department recognizes that several school districts in [Florida] have already moved to adopt such policies in line with guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities despite the State level prohibitions,” Cardona wrote in his letter to DeSantis. “The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”
Florida and Texas have the nation’s third- and 11th-highest seven-day Covid-19 infection rates. Average daily cases jumped 90% in Texas and 45% in Florida in the last two weeks, according to CDC data, a surge fueled partly by the virus’ more infectious delta variant.
The CDC recommends that schools ask all students and staff to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. The public health agency updated its guidelines last month, as the delta variant and low vaccination rates in some communities sparked a nationwide uptick in Covid-19 cases. States like Florida, Texas and Arkansas have blocked schools from requiring masks through either executive orders or state laws, part of a wider political pushback against mask-wearing and coronavirus restrictions. But school districts in cities like Miami, Dallas and Houston have flouted these bans and imposed mask mandates.