Days after the Biden administration reimbursed two Florida school districts whose board members lost their salaries for mandating masks for students, the state’s top education official is trying to strip the districts of the money.
In a series of memoranda, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran recommended Monday that the Florida Board of Education, which meets Thursday, withhold “state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds awarded” to districts that defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on school mask requirements.
Corcoran said he found probable cause that 11 school districts, including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, violated state laws by implementing a mask mandate.
He also recommended that the Board withhold the salaries of the board members in each district, a punishment already handed down in late August to officials in Alachua and Broward counties.
In response to that crackdown, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the Alachua and Broward districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to make up for the lost paychecks. The money was issued through the Project SAFE grant program, which was created last month to reimburse school districts that lose state money for implementing coronavirus mitigation strategies.
The Florida Department of Education has not announced that it has begun withholding salaries from school board members in other districts requiring masks.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona indicated in August that districts punished by Florida for requiring masks for students would be eligible for grant money. “I want you to know that the U.S. Department of Education stands with you,” he wrote in a letter to superintendents.
The 11 districts that Corcoran said violated the law will be under the microscope Thursday, when the Board of Education meets to decide whether to implement the commissioner’s recommendations and punish them.
District officials in Alachua and Broward counties questioned the legality of blocking federal funding on Tuesday.
“We’re always concerned when funds are withheld from public education, but we’re particularly concerned about the state interfering with federal funding. This will almost certainly have to be settled in court,” Dr. Carlee Simon, superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, said in a statement to ABC News.
Dr. Rosalind Osgood, chair of the school board in Broward County, called Corcoran’s recommendations to the Board of Education “extremely displeasing” and said her district was complying with the law “and saving lives.”
The debate over requiring children to wear masks at schools rages on, but not among doctors or scientists — or teachers.
Multiple recent studies have shown that masks effectively slow virus transmission and prevent school closures. Three such studies were just published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly report on infectious diseases.
Kara McCormick-Lyons, a seventh grade teacher and president of the White Plains Teachers’ Association in Westchester County, said the new findings weren’t surprising.
“Of course it works,” McCormick-Lyons said. “Physical distancing, masking, being outdoors when you can, all of these things make a difference.”
Whatever mild discomfort children may experience from wearing a mask, she added, is a small price to pay and “if that’s what we have to do to all stay here [in school], then it’s well worth it.”
One recent study led by researchers from Arizona and the CDC found the odds of an outbreak were 3.5 times higher in learning environments without a mask requirement. Additionally, schools that implemented mask mandates before school restarted in the fall have had fewer outbreaks compared to schools that more recently adopted the policy.
Another nationwide CDC study showed cases were higher in counties without mandatory masking. For every 100,000 kids, there were 18 fewer COVID cases per day in counties where schools had mask mandates, although the study’s authors did note that it’s difficult to conclude masks alone are responsible for that discrepancy when factoring in social behaviors and other potential variables among communities.
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