Florida Warned Not to Withhold Funds From School Boards as Punishment for Mask Mandates

The U.S. Department of Education is warning Florida officials not to retain funds from school districts with mask mandates.

State officials have been forging ahead for months with a threat to withhold the salaries of school board members in districts that voted in favor of requiring face covering for students and staff, arguing it goes against Governor Ron DeSantis's executive order banning such mandates.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced in late August that school board members in Alachua and Broward counties shouldn't expect to get paychecks.

To offset the losses, the U.S. Department of Education stepped in to award Broward County schools $420,957 from its Project SAFE Grant—a program specifically designed to cover any fines or repercussions that schools face because of their mask rules.

Alachua County was given $148,000 in grant money to compensate for the salaries of several members who voted in favor of mask requirements.

After the grants were announced, Florida's Department of Education quickly responded that the state board would continue to exhaust all available legal options to ensure districts comply with the law.

"The federal government will not be allowed to circumvent our laws and we will never cede the moral high ground of fighting for the rights of parents to make personal and private health care decisions for their families," said spokesman Jared Ochs.

Earlier this month, Florida officials also issued an order to withhold state funds "in an amount equal to any federal Project SAFE Grand funds, or successor grants" awarded to the school districts.

In a letter sent Monday to Corcoran, the U.S. Department of Education said it's "prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions."

"We hope that you reconsider your threatened actions against these districts in response to the Project SAFE awards, so that they may continue to take steps to help ensure safe and healthy environments for their students, families, and educators," wrote Ian Rosenblum, the department's deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs.

Florida Warned to Stop Retaining School Funds
The U.S. Department of Education is warning Florida officials not to retain funds from school districts with mask mandates. In this photo, students wear face masks and stand in a social distance on their first day of school after summer vacation at the St. Lawrence Catholic School in north of Miami, on August 18, 2021. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

It wasn't immediately clear what action the federal agency would take. Newsweek reached out to U.S. Department of Education for additional information but didn't receive a response before publication.

Newsweek also contacted the Florida Department of Education for comment on Rosenblum's letter.

Several other districts have implemented mask mandates as children returned to in-person instruction this fall, including Orange, Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Palm Beach, Indian River and Leon counties.

A Florida judge knocked down DeSantis's order barring school mask requirements in August, stating his actions "do not pass constitutional muster" and "seek to deprive the school boards in advance."