Ron DeSantis Backs Down in Mask Mandate Dispute With Florida Schools

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has backpedaled the messaging over his order banning mask mandates in schools and threats to cut salaries of district superintendents or school board members.

On July 30 the Republican lawmaker signed an executive order "ensuring parents' freedom to choose" whether their child wears a mask. However, two Florida districts—Alachua and Broward counties—have defied this rule and made masks mandatory in school unless the child can provide a doctor's note, as COVID-19 hospitalizations increase in the state.

Gov. DeSantis' office responded by saying the state's Board of Education could move to withhold salaries from the superintendent or school board members.

In a statement to CBS Miami on August 9, Christina Pushaw, the governor's press secretary, said:

"With respect to enforcing any financial consequences for noncompliance of state law regarding these rules and ultimately the rights of parents to make decisions about their children's education and health care decisions, it would be the goal of the State Board of Education to narrowly tailor any financial consequences to the offense committed. For example, the State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law.

"Education funding is intended to benefit students first and foremost, not systems. The Governor's priorities are protecting parents' rights and ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education that meets their unique needs."

But the governor's office acknowledged on Friday that the state has no direct control over the pay of superintendents and school board members who aren't state employees.

Instead, the governor's office is suggesting that the Florida Board of Education will withhold funding to school districts in the exact amount of the salaries of the superintendents and school board members infringing the rule. The office added that the school officials should "own their decisions" when it comes to the consequences of the lost funding.

Pushaw wrote in an email to Newsweek: "Those officials who infringe upon that right should own their decisions—and that means owning the consequences of their decisions, rather than demanding students, teachers, and school staff to foot the bill for their political grandstanding."

Pushaw denied that the governor's office was softening its stance on pay.

"It's not accurate to say that the state has 'softened its stance' on docking the pay of superintendents and school board members who violate state law to impose forced masking on children. The state does not, and has never, managed the payroll for local officials. These superintendents and school board members aren't state employees.

"Therefore, the only way the state could ever tailor the financial penalties to hold accountable the few officials who made the decision to break the law, would be to withhold state funding in the exact amount of those officials' salaries. That was the plan since the initial statement from our office came out a week ago and it has not changed—because this is (has always been) the extent of what the state can do in terms of tailoring sanctions.

"It is the position of the Governor's office that the individuals who choose to violate the law should be held accountable for their decisions. Governor DeSantis and [Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran] have been very clear that the entire school district community shouldn't suffer just because a few activist, anti-science school board members want to impose overreaching mandates on every student. Instead, the governor stands for parents' rights to choose what works best for their children."

DeSantis does not want students or teachers to lose funding because of "political decisions," Pushaw added.

It has been suggested that local officials who impose mask mandates in defiance of the order should divert funding from the other needs of the district, in order to pay themselves their salaries.

"We don't feel that would be fair to the students, teachers and school staff, who had no part in breaking the law," Pushaw said.

On Friday, a court in Leon County will hear a case brought by parents from several Florida counties challenging the governor's order. The lawsuit accuses DeSantis of a power grab, saying his rule violates state constitutions and endangers schools, which have the power to operate, control and supervise classes within their districts. Other school districts and parents are also suing the governor.

Corcoran wrote to the Alachua and Broward school districts on Monday, threatening to impose financial penalties if they refused to amend their masking policies. Corcoran wrote that their doctor's note opt-out requirement—which reflects U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations—was "inconsistent" with state rules and threatened to dock officials' pay.

If the penalties are imposed, Alachua County Public Schools would lose $300,000 from its $537 million school-year budget for 2021-22, the Miami Herald reported. The newspaper calculated that Broward County Public Schools' $2.6 billion budget would be reduced by $700,000.

As millions of children return to school, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association revealed on Thursday that nearly 4.3 million U.S. COVID-19 cases have affected children—about 14 percent of all cases.

The Sunshine State is seeing some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the U.S. as the Delta variant spreads. On Thursday, Florida recorded 20,656 new cases of the disease in 24 hours.

The state is also experiencing the highest rate of children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S. According to data from the CovKid project, which uses COVID-19 hospitalization numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of August 7, Florida is reporting 8.1 children hospitalized with COVID-19 per 100,000 residents.

Florida also has the highest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations among residents aged 18 and 19. As of August 7, Florida reported 20.6 hospitalizations per 100,000 people in that age group.

Ron DeSantis lawsuit mask mandate
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami on July 13. A lawsuit brought by parents in Leon County accuses the governor of a power grab. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Update 8/13/21, 10 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add comments from
Christina Pushaw, the press secretary of Governor Ron DeSantis.

Update 8/13/21, 4 p.m. ET. This article has been updated with the statement from
Christina Pushaw, the press secretary of Governor Ron DeSantis, sent on August 9 to CBS Miami.