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.
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.
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
MASK MANDATE BAN BLOCKED, SUSPENDED, OR NOT BEING ENFORCED
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.