Florida’s fight over masks in schools has gone national, and the politicians involved are ramping up the rhetoric in ways that won’t disappoint the peanut gallery.
The constant back-and-forth between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner and democratic candidate for Governor in 2022 Nikki Fried has only increased in recent weeks as Fried holds daily COVID-19 briefings to hammer away about dysfunction at Florida’s highest levels of government as the state accounts for nearly one-quarter of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“I fall back on the fact that this is a failure of leadership from the executive branch and from the Governor’s Office in a void of leadership. If you just did what was right from the get-go, there wouldn’t be this type of confusion,” Fried said at her latest COVID-19 briefing Tuesday.
Fried laid into DeSantis for his recent threat to withhold salaries of school board members and superintendents who defy his school mask policy.
“The Governor may have been a bully on the playground growing up, he may be able to bully the Legislature, but the superintendent and the school board members are not going to be bullied,” Fried said.
DeSantis’ executive order threatened to withhold funding from school districts that don’t comply with his order outlawing mask mandates at schools. On Monday, in a statement attributed to press secretary Christina Pushaw, his office said the state would “narrowly tailor any financial consequences” and used withholding salaries of school board members and superintendents as an example.
The threat comes as Florida school districts across the state have been enacting workarounds to comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as they barrel toward their first day of school amid rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. CDC guidelines advise indoor masking for all teachers and students regardless of vaccination status.
Fried compared the statement from DeSantis’ office to an “almost authoritarian dictatorship style of threatening our school board members and our superintendents.” She said she has talked to school board members and superintendents who are “more empowered now, today than they were 24 hours ago.”
Hillsborough County schools, one of the state’s largest school districts, kicked off classes Tuesday requiring masks for students with an opt-out option if parents fill out paperwork. The policy will run through at least Sept. 2. The decision by Hillsborough schools was made Saturday before DeSantis’ threat to withhold school salaries.
So far, school superintendent Addison Davis and school board members have not announced a decision to revisit the policy before Sept. 2.
Fried thinks DeSantis’ threat is an empty one.
“Not only is it borderline if not unconstitutional,” she said, “only the Legislature has the power to actually dictate where money goes to.”
But Fried’s office is considering a workaround just in case. Last week, Fried said her office is in ongoing discussions with the White House COVID-19 Task Force to sort out options for the federal government to offset any financial losses Florida’s schools incur due to employing mask policies that follow CDC guidelines. Fried said Tuesday backfilling school officials’ salaries could fall under the umbrella if necessary, and her office is still “consistently talking” about the matter with the White House.
“They know what the situation is on the ground here in Florida, and they are working through ideas, suggestions, and their authority of making sure that there’ll be money to our schools, if the Governor continues to have these threats,” Fried said.
But it’s not exactly clear that the federal government does have a clear understanding of the “situation on the ground here in Florida,” according to tweets from the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) Monday evening, which accused the CDC of publishing inaccurate data about the extent of the COVID-19 crisis in Florida in its COVID Tracker.
The Health Department’s Twitter account said the CDC combined multiple days of data into one day of data, which had the effect of showing COVID-19 cases in Florida skyrocketing over the weekend.
“We anticipate the CDC will correct the record,” read one of the tweets from the @HealthFla account.
The daily case counts for Florida currently posted on the CDC COVID Tracker are incorrect. The current listing states 28,317.
The accurate data are as follows:
Friday, August 6: 21,500
Saturday August 7: 19,567
Sunday, August 8: 15,319
The 3 day average: 18,795
— Florida Dept. Health (@HealthyFla) August 10, 2021
Fried said the data discrepancy would never have happened if Florida hadn’t moved from daily COVID-19 reporting to weekly COVID-19 reporting in early June.
“The Department of Health, the Governor’s Office have these numbers. They need to go back to daily reporting for transparency purposes,” Fried said.
Fried said the Health Department does not share COVID-19 data directly with her office, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. To know the latest COVID-19 numbers in Florida, Fried is waiting on the data discrepancy to be worked out between the Health Department and the CDC.
“I am very worried about the harm caused by the latest confusion and the lack of transparency and leadership we have seen in Florida throughout this surge in recent months. So, while we await more clarity on the numbers, I want to remind the people of Florida that this virus is real,” Fried said.