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Cardona Presses Florida, Texas on Masks in Schools, Pledges Support for Defiant Districts

By Evie Blad — August 15, 2021 3 min read
Image of a boy working on a computer with a  disposable medical mask covering his face for health and  safety.
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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.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

  • As of Dec. 10, four states have bans in effect that prevent school districts from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week analysis. Five additional states have such bans, but they 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


    1. Florida

    On Sept. 22, Florida's surgeon general instituted a rule that gives parents and legal guardians "sole discretion" over masking in schools. On Nov. 5, a judge sided with the state health department in a legal challenge to rule. On Nov. 18 Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that allows parents to sue school districts that require masks.

    2. Oklahoma

    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 school mask mandates if they choose.

    3. Texas

    On Dec. 1, an appeals court halted a federal judge’s order that had stopped Texas from enforcing its ban on mask mandates in schools, allowing the prohibition to remain in effect.

    4. Utah

    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.

    MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED


    1. Arizona

    On Sept. 27, a judge in Arizona blocked the state laws banning mask mandates that were set to take effect on Sept. 29. On Nov. 2, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

    2. Arkansas

    An Arkansas judge ruled on Dec. 29, that a law signed by the governor in April that prohibited local officials, including school boards, from setting mask mandates was unconstitutional. School districts have been able to set their own mask requirements since August when the judge put the law on hold.

    3. Iowa

    On Sept. 13, a federal judge ordered Iowa to halt enforcement of its law banning mask mandates in schools. The order was later extended. The case is now awaiting a ruling from a federal appeals court.

    4. South Carolina

    On Sept. 28, a federal judge suspended South Carolina from enforcing the rule that banned school districts from requiring masks for students.

    5. Tennessee

    MASKS REQUIRED


    1. California
    2. Connecticut
    3. Delaware
    4. District of Columbia
    5. Hawaii
    6. Illinois
    7. Louisiana

    According to a State of Emergency proclamation issued Nov. 23, and most recently extended on Jan. 19, students are required to wear masks in schools, but districts can opt out of the mandate if they adopt an isolation and quarantine policy consistent with the state's department of health protocols.

    8. Maryland

    On Jan. 5, the mask mandate was extended for 180 days, but newly allowed school districts to opt out if at least 80% of the county or 80% of their students and staff have been fully vaccinated.

    9. Massachusetts

    On Jan. 10, Massachusetts extended the state's mask requirement through Feb. 28. On Sept. 27, Massachusetts said schools can apply for a waiver from the face covering rules if 80% of their students and staff have been vaccinated. If a school reaches the 80% threshold, unvaccinated students and employees are still required to wear masks.

    10. Nevada
    11. New Jersey

    On Dec. 7, a judge ruled New Jersey's school mask mandate is "rational" and does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

    12. New Mexico
    13. New York
    14. Oregon
    15. Rhode Island
    16. Virginia

    An executive order from Virginia's new governor that is set to take effect on Jan. 24 rescinds the state's current school mask mandate and instead allows parents to opt their child out of any mask mandate at their school.

    17. Washington
  • Note: In Missouri, the state attorney general has threatened to sue school districts that require masks, citing a November ruling by a county judge that said local health orders tied to COVID-19 are illegal. (The ruling is being interpreted differently by different districts.) The state’s treasurer announced he was also cracking down on schools with mask mandates.
    Updated 01/20/2022| 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.

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