Education secretary calls to encourage Florida superintendents in battle over masks

Education secretary calls to encourage Florida superintendents in battle over masks

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, with the blessing of the White House, is calling school administrators in Florida – who are now facing loss of income for defying state rules barring mask mandates — to urge them to hold the line, according to two administration officials.

The calls to Superintendents Dr. Vickie Cartwright and Carlee Simon from Broward and Alachua Counties signal the Biden administration’s intention to play a more aggressive role in protecting school administrators across the nation at risk of retaliation for requiring returning students to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Also, school districts that fail to provide a safe environment for returning students could ultimately face financial penalties if parents, particularly those with immunocompromised children, file complaints with the Department’s Office of Civil Rights, the officials said.

“We stand ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff,” Cardona said in a statement.

On Friday, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said Broward County and Alachua County school board members who voted to impose a mask mandate could start losing their monthly pay as soon as next week unless they reverse their policy. Administrator salaries will be covered under federal funds now flowing to schools, and districts that fail to protect students could ultimately pay a financial penalty, according to federal officials who briefed NBC.

Cardona is assuring the officials that, under a series of coronavirus relief funds passed by Congress, they can bill any lost income to millions in federal funds that have already been dispersed to school districts, according to two officials.

The calls are an initial shot across the bow as federal officials seek to encourage school administrators in at least eight states with bans on mask mandates to adopt them if they feel it’s necessary as the coronavirus surges across many parts of the nation.

Millions of unvaccinated public school students are returning to classrooms despite a dramatic spike in infections, particularly across the southeastern part of the country. Last week, Cardona also sent letters to the eight states — Florida, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah — warning that federal funds are dependent on district plans for a safe return to in-person instruction.

An Education Department official said any potential complaints and resulting penalties against schools would be reviewed case by case.

“The Office for Civil Rights will consider any complaints that they receive from students, parents or guardians, and other members of the public about discrimination against students with disabilities, along with other discrimination complaints, whether at the state or local level,” the official said.

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