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Education secretary calls to encourage Florida superintendents in battle over masks

Miguel Cardona tells local school leaders that federal funds will cover salaries docked because they instituted mandates.
Image: Miguel Cardona
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on Aug. 5, 2021.Susan Walsh / AP file

WASHINGTON — U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, with the blessing of the White House, called school administrators in Florida facing retaliation for mandating masks with a message, two administration officials said Friday: Stay the course.

Cardona spoke to Vickie Cartwright, the interim superintendent for Broward County Public Schools, and Carlee Simon, the superintendent for Alachua County Public Schools, according to the officials.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is one of several Republican governors who signed laws or executive orders banning mask mandates, has threatened to withhold state funding equal to the salaries of those superintendents and all school board members in Broward and Alachua counties — a six-figure total in those districts.

Cardona's calls come days after President Joe Biden signaled that his administration would play a more aggressive role in protecting school administrators across the nation who defy governors who are trying to block local school officials from requiring students to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In a speech Wednesday, Biden said he had directed the Education Department to use its legal authority against those governors, and added that emergency Covid funding in the American Rescue Plan could cover educators' salaries if their pay is cut for requiring masks in their classrooms.

In his conversations with Cartwright and Simon, the two officials said, Cardona reiterated that message, underscoring that any lost income could be covered with federal funds that have already been dispersed to school districts.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said Friday that Broward County and Alachua County school board members who voted to impose a mask mandate could start losing their monthly pay as soon as next week, unless the districts reverse their policies.

“We stand ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff,” Cardona said in a statement.

Federal officials have sought to court further defiance from local school districts as states face a resurgent pandemic, in part by stressing the administration's support for such moves. Biden's administration has also dangled its own threat of financial penalties that could come along with following anti-mask mandate orders.

Millions of unvaccinated public school students are returning to classrooms despite a dramatic spike in infections, particularly across the southeastern part of the country. (A vaccine has not yet been authorized for emergency use in children under the age of 12.) Cardona has sent letters to the governors of eight states — Florida, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah — warning that federal funds are dependent on district plans for a safe return to in-person instruction.

If parents, particularly those with immunocompromised children, file complaints with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, school districts that are found to have failed to provide a safe environment for returning students could ultimately face financial penalties, the two officials said.

An Education Department official said any potential complaints and resulting penalties against schools would be reviewed case by case.

“The Office for Civil Rights will consider any complaints that they receive from students, parents or guardians, and other members of the public about discrimination against students with disabilities, along with other discrimination complaints, whether at the state or local level,” the official said.