The Department of Education is sending letters to the governors of Texas and Florida, as well as Florida school district superintendents, amid an escalating battle between the White House and state officials over school mask guidance as the Delta variant surges.
In a new letter Friday, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida that he is “deeply concerned” by the state’s executive order restricting the implementation of school mask mandates. Cardona also took aim at the recent threat from the governor’s office that the state board of education could move to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who disregard his executive order.
“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. The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote in the letter, which was also addressed to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
Cardona sent a similar warning to Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s education commissioner Mike Morath, underscoring how “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.”
This follows statements from White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier this week, who told reporters that the White House and federal government are continuing to look for ways to support local school districts and educators in Florida, “as they try to follow the science do the right thing and save lives.”
Psaki said later that paying for salaries could be a part of that, and the Department of Education is looking at options. Withholding funds is not the intention, she said.
Previously, Biden and members of his administration have specifically targeted the governors of Florida and Texas for standing in the way of mask and vaccine requirements, pointing to the extraordinary amount of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in their states.
In Friday’s letter to DeSantis and Corcoran, Cardona pointed to how Florida school districts can use funds from federal Covid relief for educators’ salaries, noting that “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.”
In the letter to Florida school district superintendents, Cardona further emphasized the administration’s support, saying, “I want you to know that the U.S. Department of Education stands with you. Your decisions are vital to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction, and they are undoubtedly in the best interest of your students.”