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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida will dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts defying Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on pandemic masking mandates in classrooms, state education officials ruled Thursday.
The Florida State Board of Education approved plans to deduct a monthly salary from school board members in eight counties, including some of the state’s largest cities. It will also reduce overall funding for counties if they receive federal grants designed to ease the state’s fines.
The penalties would go into effect in 48 hours if the districts do not allow parents to de-register their children from the mask requirement in schools.
The ruling follows legal and public debate over the state’s mask policy and escalates a feud between the DeSantis administration and the White House, which has pledged to cover such sanctions with federal dollars. DeSantis, a Republican, has a potential presidential election in 2024 in mind.
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the county’s school officials violated state laws by enforcing mask requirements. He recommended the state move to offset the effects of any federal reimbursements.
“We will not be heavily armed, nor will we allow others to be,” Corcoran said. “Should the federal government’s efforts deviate even slightly from justice to deter parental rights or lawful speech, they should prepare for a very swift and zealous response.”
Masks in schools have become one of the newest fronts in the partisan war over coronavirus regulations. Like DeSantis, some Republican governors have moved to banning mask mandates, although guidelines on face-covering, testing, and quarantining in schools across the country vary widely.
More than 5.5 million children in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19, with 20% of child cases having occurred since the start of the school year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Citing infections, some school districts scaled back face-to-face learning after schools reopened in August. Children are at lower risk of serious illness or death, but at least 498 have died.
Just as Florida’s schools were preparing for the 2021-2022 school year this summer, coronavirus cases and hospital admissions in the state soared, fueled by the Delta variant, adding a sense of urgency to the mask debate. However, the state’s outbreak has declined significantly since then, with hospital admissions climbing from more than 17,000 in late August to just over 4,000 on Thursday.
School officials from the eight counties generally argued that their masking rules were in line with state laws and necessary to protect children and staff, with some reporting coronavirus deaths among students or teachers. Many also referred to the guidelines of the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which instruct teachers, staff and students to wear masks regardless of whether or not they have been vaccinated.
“By the end of the first week and a half of school, it became clear we needed to make a change to protect our students and keep our schools open,” said Leon County principal Rocky Hanna, citing rising case numbers and the virus-related death of a student . “We were forced to introduce a somewhat stricter mask policy than we originally had at the beginning of the school year.”
In addition to Leon County, the other counties involved in the decision are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach. In Alachua and Broward counties, school district salaries were previously withheld due to mask rules.