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White House Says Florida School Officials Penalized over Mask-Mandate Ban Could Be Federally Reimbursed

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at CPAC in Orlando, Fla., February 26, 2021. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

The Biden administration sent a letter to Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis suggesting that any school officials penalized over the state’s ban of mask mandates could be reimbursed with federal funds.

“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,” it reads.

Penned by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the letter took issue with DeSantis’s recent executive order prohibiting public-school districts from imposing mask mandates on students, faculty, and staff.

“Florida’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 students and staff at risk,” it continued.

The document stated that the Department of Education stands in solidarity with and plans to support the handful of Florida districts resisting the governor’s directive. Specifically, Cardona said the administration will consider siphoning off money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), provided under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act), to compensate school staff that have had salaries withheld for disobeying the governor’s order by requiring face-coverings in schools.

Acceptable uses of the ESSER funds include “activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency,” Cardona quoted.

The letter accuses Florida of “threatening to withhold State funds from school districts that are working to reopen schools safely rather than protecting students and educators and getting school districts the Federal pandemic recovery funds to which they are entitled.”

At a press briefing earlier this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki condemned DeSantis’s order and suggested that the administration could resort to federally reimbursing school districts that get their funds revoked for not allowing parents to opt-out of policies that require masking in the classroom.

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