Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas are encountering mounting challenges in their quest to ban mandates requiring masks in schools, as lawsuits advance through the courts and the Biden administration steps in to back districts requiring face coverings.
In a pair of letters sent Friday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote both governors and their education chiefs to express concern about recent executive actions prohibiting 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.”
He also noted that federal pandemic relief funds could be used to make up for state-imposed penalties on local school districts.
“The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote.
President Joe Biden extended support by phone Friday evening, calling one of the superintendents in Florida challenging DeSantis and his “bad public health measures,” saying he “commended their leadership and courage to do the right thing for the health and well-being of their students, teachers, and schools,” per a pool report.
The federal response comes as lawsuits disputing the governors’ orders make their way through courts. Parents in Florida and local officials and school districts in Texas have sued the governors, contending that their restriction on mask mandates and other mitigation measures will risk the health of people in their state, including children resuming class this fall.
Texas and Florida account for 40% of new hospitalizations nationwide, the White House said Thursday. The states lead the nation in new cases reported in the past week, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.
Responding to questions from The Post about the letter, DeSantis’s office compared the offer of federal funds to $1,000 checks the governor gave out to teachers, which the Biden administration said may have violated COVID-19 relief fund rules.
“What we’re doing in Florida must be working for Secretary Cardona to prioritize funding the salaries of politicians over students, parents, and teachers,” spokeswoman Christina Pushaw wrote in an email.
Abbott did not respond to requests for comment from The Post.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, tweeted Friday after defeats on the appellate level after attempting to overturn local mask mandates, that he was taking the case to the state Supreme Court.
“The rule of law will decide,” he wrote.
While Abbott and DeSantis have said they believe parents should decide whether their children wear masks in school, surging infections and hospitalizations in both states have left many parents worried about sending their children back into classrooms where others are not masked and could transmit the virus.
Parents from a half-dozen Florida counties have sued DeSantis and state education officials, arguing the order infringes on classroom safety guaranteed by the state’s constitution.
Charles Gallagher, the lead attorney representing parents from a half-dozen counties, told The Post that DeSantis’s argument that people should have the individual freedom to decide if they want to wear a mask to prevent spreading the virus to others is “ludicrous.”
“It’s not parent choice,” Gallagher said. “It’s public health.”
On Friday, DeSantis’s attorney told Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper said the state plans to file a motion to dismiss the case, arguing it would violate the governor’s executive branch authority and accusing the parents of political motivations.
Amy Nell, one of the parents suing DeSantis, said she’s received daily notifications of new cases in just the first four days of school. More than 4,000 students in her son’s Tampa school district are isolated or quarantined as of Saturday, according to an email from the school district Nell shared with The Post.
“It’s nerve-racking to expect that call or text from the front office every day that more kids are sick, and that at some point, we will undoubtedly have to quarantine,” Nell said.
When Nell first learned of DeSantis’s executive order to move forward with allowing parents to choose if their children wore masks to school, Nell weighed keeping her 10-year-old son out of school until the outbreak ceased, transferring him to a Montessori school or moving him to virtual learning, but every option didn’t seem fair to the fifth-grader looking forward to graduating elementary school.
“We wanted him to have all these experiences,” she said.
Also stuck with difficult choices are school district leaders who face penalties for straying from the states’ orders. In Florida, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the state could withhold funds equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all the members of the school board.
That could cost Alachua County schools $300,000 from its budget of about $537 million, superintendent Carlee Simon told The Post. Simon said Saturday she was “very pleased” about the offer of federal support.
“We appreciate the fact that the president and the Secretary of Education are willing to get involved and to help protect the students and our families and our community,” Simon said.
Less than one week into the school year, Simon said that more than 500 children are quarantined due to exposure. More than 100 students and staff members have tested positive in the past two weeks, according to data provided by the school district.
Simon said the district has also received intimidating messages from people who oppose masks, including someone who repeatedly called the district office threatening to bring a “militia” to school campuses.
The politicization of masks has effectively made running schools much harder, Simon said, fearing a wave of infections following days of transmission in schools.
“We know we have people who have positivity rates at home, and we have families who are still choosing to bring their children to school,” she said. “When they do that, they’re essentially bringing covid into our buildings, and that’s putting everyone at risk.”