WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration on Friday offered its full-throated support for local cities and school boards in Texas and Florida that are defying orders by their Republican governors that prohibit mask-wearing mandates in schools.
In a pair of open letters from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the administration condemned the orders from Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida which contravene public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cardona also noted that federal COVID-19 relief funds for schools could be used to fill any financial gaps caused by penalties imposed on local school districts by state leaders.
“The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote.
The two states are experiencing some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation, driven by the spread of the more transmissible delta variant among their unvaccinated populations. The two states alone accounted for 40 percent of hospitalizations from the virus over the last week, the White House said Thursday.
Both Abbott and DeSantis have said they believe parents should decide whether their children wear masks in school. The CDC earlier this month recommended universal mask-wearing in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, to slow the spread of the variant.
The letters mark the sharpest-yet pushback by the Biden administration to the state policies, and come days after the president indicated he did not believe he had direct authority to overturn the governors’ actions.
“I say to these governors: Please help. But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way,” Biden said earlier this month. “The people are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has said he may recommend the state’s Board of Education withhold the salaries of the superintendent and school board members of districts that have instituted mask-mandates.
Cardona wrote 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 (federal virus relief) funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts.”
In addition to prohibiting mask mandates, Abbott’s administration has said that schools do not need to conduct contact tracing for potential COVID-19 infections. Cardona’s letter makes clear that federal funds can also be used for contact tracing.