Feds scold 2 governors who are battling mask mandates as delta sweeps into schools
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent letters on Aug. 13 to the governors and state education chiefs of Florida and Texas decrying the ban on universal mask mandates in schools.
The mandates could limit school districts’ ability in the states to abide by the American Rescue Plan requirement to develop plans “for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services,” Cardona said.
“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 to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.
“Texas’s recent actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.”
In Florida, local educational agencies that require masks in schools could use ARP ESSER funds to pay superintendents and board members if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran follow through on plans to withhold salaries.
“On August 9, the Governor’s spokesperson released a statement specifying that in cases where school districts adopt masking policies consistent with CDC guidance, ‘the State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members,'” Cardona wrote. “Any threat by Florida to withhold salaries from superintendents and school board members who are working to protect students and educators (or to levy other financial penalties) can be addressed using ESSER funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts.”
Cardona also noted that Florida has yet to allocate any of its ARP ESSER funds to LEAs, despite the ARP Act provision that said such funds should be made available not later than 60 days from state receipt of the funds. Florida received its first tranche of ARP ESSER funds on May 24.
Cardona expressed support for LEAs in both Texas and Florida that are implementing CDC recommendations and requiring mitigation measures, including universal masking.
“The Department recognizes that several school districts 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 in both letters. “The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction.”
Cardona said ED is “eager to partner” with leaders in both Texas and Florida “on any efforts to further our shared goals of protecting the health and safety of students and educators.”
However, Cardona added in Letter to DeSantis, “If FL DOE does not wish to pursue such an approach, the department will continue to work directly with the school districts and educators that serve Florida’s students.”
Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications.