While kids under 12 years old are still not eligible to receive a COVID19 vaccine, a debate is raging over whether to require students to wear masks as they head back to school. It’s leading to a face off between states and the federal government.
Florida requires schools allow parents have the decision to opt-out of mask mandates. Friday, the Florida Department of Education announced steps against Broward and Alachua County Public Schools for not complying, while the US Secretary of Education and President offered support for the districts.
"Let me be clear: We will do everything we can to support local school districts in safely reopening schools. American Rescue Plan funds can be used to backfill the salaries of the brave Florida school board members, superintendents, and other educators keeping our children safe," President Joe Biden tweeted.
The Florida Department of Education said it’s giving the districts 48 hours to comply with state rules. If they don't, the state will pursue withholding state funds on a monthly basis equal to 1/12th of the total annual payment of board members who voted for the mask mandates, until they come into compliance.
"It is important to remember that this issue is about ensuring local school board members, elected politicians, follow the law. These public officials have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida. We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow," said Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran in a released statement.
The U.S. Secretary of Education says they're ready to help districts facing repercussions, pointing to American Rescue Plan funds.
He called superintendents in both districts Friday.
"The Biden Administration is fully committed to a safe and healthy return to in-person learning for all students this fall. It is deeply troubling to see state leaders putting politics ahead of the health and safety of our students, and that instead of supporting our educators for doing the right thing, state leaders are trying to punish them," US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a released statement.
Florida Governor Ron Desantis is not back down.
"Cleary this is something the parents should do. For the federal government to come in and try to over rule parents rights and force masks on kindergartners, first graders and second graders, that’s a massive overreach," said Desantis.
The school districts are also not backing down.
"Our School Board believes our District is in compliance. We have provided exceptions to the mask mandate for our students with IEPs or Section 504 plans, and for those who have a medical condition and provide signed documentation from a licensed medical professional," stated Dr. Rosalind Osgood in a released statement.
"Our School Board feels the Governor is overreaching his authority. The Constitution of the State of Florida gives local school boards the authority to make policies that govern local school districts."
Alachua County Public School’s superintendent said they have no plans to change their current masking requirement, which also allow a medical exemption. In fact, the superintendent said they'll pursue legal action if necessary.
"Based on the dramatic spike in cases and quarantines in our schools and community, we believe universal masking is absolutely critical to keeping schools open, protecting the health of our students and staff and limiting the current strain on our local healthcare system," stated Dr. Carlee Simon.
Three of Florida's largest school districts also voted for similar mask mandates: Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade Counties. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education said they expect an inquiry process similar to the investigations in Alachua and Broward counties.
Next week, a judge is expected to hear arguments over a lawsuit challenging the state's mask rules. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed another suit Friday on behalf of the NAACP and families with medically vulnerable children.