Feds threaten action against state for punishing mask-mandating school districts

High school students wearing masks on their way home
Alachua and Broward schools face additional sanctions from the state.

Another shot has gone off in the ongoing battle between federal and state education officials over rules regarding school districts that require mandatory student masks, with the Feds warning of a coming “enforcement action” against the state.

For mandatory mask policies against Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ wishes, the state Department of Education is planning to reduce state aid to school districts in Alachua and Broward counties in an amount equivalent to federal grants, plus school board members’ monthly salaries.

The districts had been awarded federal money — $421,000 for Broward and $148,000 for Alachua — after adopting mask policies that defied DeSantis’ order. The federal grants were given to make up for the state’s original action reducing state aid in an amount equivalent to school board members’ salaries.

The districts’ mask mandates are consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

Both school districts were expecting to feel the added financial pinch Tuesday, when the districts usually receive the monthly state aid allocations. Broward and Alachua, and school districts in four other counties, are currently suing over the enforcement of Department of Health rules that resulted in the aid reduction.

The U.S. Education Department sent a letter Monday warning of “enforcement action” that will be taken against the state if the orders reducing the districts’ state aid in the amount of the federal grants are enforced, however.

“If FLDOE moves forward with its planned reduction of state aid to Alachua and Broward, the department is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions,” reads the letter from Ian Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs at the federal Education Department.

The state DOE spokesman called it a “harassing and legally hollow” letter.

“We will continue forward, lawfully, as we have this entire time,” spokesman Jared Ochs said.

School superintendents in Alachua and Broward counties said they appreciated the show of support from the federal agency. The Broward County School Board is due to take up lifting the mask mandate Tuesday, according to the Sun Sentinel.

“Broward County Public Schools appreciates the continued support of the United States Department of Education in helping our District provide safe learning environments for our students, teachers and staff,” Broward County Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said in a statement.

Alachua County schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said the district’s action is consistent with best practices — and the law. And she also appreciates the steps U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has taken.

Federal support, Simon said, “is critical in light of the challenges we’re facing over our protocols, which we believe are consistent with state law and our constitutional obligation to provide students with a safe learning environment.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Education Department did not elaborate on what the “enforcement action” would entail.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected]



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