Biden warns governors: Stop trying to bully school leaders over masks

Cardona says masking is a civil rights issue, considering COVID's impacts on students of color, low-income families and children with disabilities. 
By: | August 20, 2021
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, shown here handing out meals to students, is the latest Florida schools leader to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on school mask mandates.Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, shown here handing out meals to students, is the latest Florida schools leader to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on school mask mandates.

Governors threatening to strip funding and take other action against school leaders who’ve mandated masks are now facing their own reckoning with a higher authority.

President Joe Biden Wednesday directed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to use federal power, including taking legal action, against governors “who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators.”

“Unfortunately, as we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, some politicians are trying to turn public safety measures—that is, children wearing masks in school—into political disputes for their own political gain,” Biden said at a press briefing. “Some are even trying to take power away from local educators by banning masks in school. They’re setting a dangerous tone.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona are among those who have, among other things, threatened to cut the salaries of officials or deny funding to districts that impose mask mandates. Biden said the administration could use American Rescue Plan funds to cover salary or funding cuts.

“Last week, I called school superintendents in Florida and Arizona to thank them for doing the right thing and requiring masks in their schools,” Biden said. “One of them said, ‘We teach science, so we follow the science.’”

After that announcement, Cardona then dashed off letters to the governors and school superintendents in several of the states—including Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah—that have taken “action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

The bans on mask mandates jeopardize local school leaders’ ability to provide in-person instruction safely, a requirement of American Rescue Plan funding. Districts leaders are allowed to use ESSER funds to implement masking policies or other policies aligned with CDC guidance, the letter says.


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“The Department recognizes that several LEAs in your State 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. “The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”

Cardona also told The New York Times that his department views masking as a civil rights issue, considering the disproportionate impacts COVID has had on students of color, low-income families and children with disabilities.

Miami mandates masks

Not long after Biden spoke, leaders in more large Florida districts—including the state’s largest—took action. Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Hillsborough County Schools both required all students and staff to wear masks on buses and in school buildings.

The number of students in quarantine in Hillsborough County has doubled to more than 10,000 just this week, account for nearly 5% of the student body. Less than 1% of the district’s students and staff have tested positive for COVID.

“It is difficult to compare the start of this school year to the first weeks of the 2020-21 school year because there were 83,488 students that opted for eLearning and were not on campus,” the district said on its website. “The state did not approve or fund e-learning this year so it cannot be an option.”

The School District of Palm Beach County is no longer allowing families to opt-out of its mask mandate, The Palm Beach Post reported.