State bans on local mask requirements may put students at risk as schools reopen and may interfere with districts’ efforts to create federally mandated plans to spend COVID-19 relief aid, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote to leaders in Texas and Florida Friday.
Cardona pledged support for school districts that defy their state leaders in creating their virus mitigation strategies, and he said funds from the American Rescue Plan could be used to offset state financial penalties if they do so.
“The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy,” Cardona wrote in a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
In a similar letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, and state Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Cardona also flagged guidance that said Texas schools are not required to conduct contact tracing to detect and mitigate possible spread of the coronavirus.
“These State level actions against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appear to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and are at odds with the school district planning process” included in federal requirements for American Rescue Plan funding, Cardona wrote.
As a condition of receiving the bulk of the $122 billion in K-12 aid, the Biden administration will require schools to detail how they will incorporate recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on strategies including masks into their reopening plans.
Texas and Florida are among eight states that have prohibited local school districts from setting universal mask requirements, which the CDC has said are key to reducing the risk viral transmission within schools. As low vaccination rates have led to the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant, some districts have sued over such restrictions or opted to defy them altogether.
Nine states have banned school districts from setting universal mask mandates. Those bans are in effect in six states. In the remaining three states, mask mandate bans have been blocked, suspended, or are not being enforced. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia require masks be worn in schools.
MASK MANDATE BAN IN EFFECT
- South Carolina
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
*On Sept. 22, Florida‘s newly-appointed surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians “sole discretion” over masking in schools.
On Sept. 1, an Oklahoma judge temporarily blocked the state law banning school mask mandates, but students or their parents can still opt out of the requirement if they choose.
Tennessee‘s governor has signed an executive order requiring schools to allow families to opt out of mask mandates.
In Utah, local health departments can issue 30-day school mask mandates with approval from the state or county government, according to the state’s top education official.
An Arizona judge ruled the state law banning mask mandates will not go into effect until Sept. 29.
In Arkansas, a judge paused the state law that prohibits local officials from setting mask mandates, meaning school districts can—at least for now—set their own local mask requirements.
On Sept. 13, a federal district court ordered Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools.
Updated guidance released by the Texas Education Agency on Sept. 17 states that per the governor’s executive order, school systems “cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.”
Updated 9/22/2021 | Sources: Local media reports | Learn more here
Cardona’s letters come as the Biden administration takes an increasingly confrontational approach with state leaders over school precautions. After a year of prolonged hybrid and remote learning in many districts, the White House has stressed the importance of in-person schooling, but has cautioned that a lack of safety precautions may threaten schools’ ability to operate.
There are already some reports of schools temporarily shifting to remote learning a week or two into the school year after large numbers of students were asked to quarantine because of possible exposure.
President Joe Biden called the leaders of the Broward County district in Florida and the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona Saturday after their school boards defied their states by enacting mask requirements.
On Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court blocked lower court decisions that had allowed some local governments to set mask requirements in response to a petition from Abbott.
“The path forward relies on personal responsibility, not government mandates,” Abbott said.
DeSantis, considered a possible 2024 presidential opponent for Biden, has threatened to withhold state funding or administrators’ salaries for school districts that defy him on masks.
Cardona pressed both state leaders to act quickly to administer relief funds. He said federal officials would work directly with local leaders if necessary.
“The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” he wrote.