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Biden admin backs Texas, Florida districts on mask mandates

A handful of the state's biggest school districts have decided to defy the governor's order by issuing mask mandates.

AUSTIN, Texas — President Joe Biden's administration on Friday offered its full-throated support for local cities and school boards in Texas and Florida that are defying orders by their Republican governors that prohibit mask-wearing mandates in schools.

In a pair of open letters from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, the administration condemned the orders from Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida which contravene public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cardona also noted that federal COVID-19 relief funds for schools could be used to fill any financial gaps caused by penalties imposed on local school districts by state leaders.

“The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote.

The two states are experiencing some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation, driven by the spread of the more transmissible delta variant among their unvaccinated populations. The two states alone accounted for 40 percent of hospitalizations from the virus over the last week, the White House said Thursday.

Both Abbott and DeSantis have said they believe parents should decide whether their children wear masks in school. The CDC earlier this month recommended universal mask-wearing in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, to slow the spread of the variant.

The letters mark the sharpest-yet pushback by the Biden administration to the state policies, and come days after the president indicated he did not believe he had direct authority to overturn the governors' actions.

“I say to these governors: Please help. But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way,” Biden said earlier this month. “The people are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has said he may recommend the state’s Board of Education withhold the salaries of the superintendent and school board members of districts that have instituted mask mandates.

Cardona wrote that “any threat by Florida to withhold salaries from superintendents and school board members who are working to protect students and educators (or to levy other financial penalties) can be addressed using (federal virus relief) funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts.”

In addition to prohibiting mask mandates, Abbott's administration has said that schools do not need to conduct contact tracing for potential COVID-19 infections. Cardona's letter makes clear that federal funds can also be used for contact tracing.

Cardona's letter can be read below:

Dear Governor Abbott and Commissioner Morath:   

As the new school year begins in school districts across Texas, it is our shared priority that students return to in-person instruction safely. The safe return to in-person instruction requires that school districts be able to protect the health and safety of students and educators, and that families have confidence that their schools are doing everything possible to keep students healthy. Texas’s recent actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by Federal law.

We are aware that Texas has issued an Executive Order prohibiting local educational agencies (LEAs), among other local government entities, from adopting requirements for the universal wearing of masks. Further, guidance released on August 5, 2021, by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) states that “school systems are not required to conduct COVID-19 contact tracing.”

These State level actions against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appear to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and are at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department’s) interim final requirements. As you know, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act) requires each LEA that receives Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funds to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services. (See section 2001(i).)The Department’s interim final requirements clarify that such plan “must describe...how [the LEA] will maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff and the extent to which it has adopted policies, and a description of any such policies, on each of the following safety recommendations established by the CDC...” The safety recommendations include “universal and correct wearing of masks” and “contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in collaboration with the [appropriate] health departments.”  

The Department is concerned that Texas’s actions could limit each LEA’s ability under the ARP Act to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services that the LEA determines adequately protects students and educators by following CDC guidance. The Department recognizes that several LEAs in your State have already moved to adopt such policies in line with guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities despite the State-level prohibitions. The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction. 

The Department also emphasizes that it is within an LEA’s discretion to use ARP ESSER funds for contact tracing, implementing indoor masking policies, or other policies aligned with CDC guidance. Section 2001(e)(2)(Q) of the ARP Act explicitly gives LEAs the authority to use ARP ESSER funds (as well as ESSER funds granted through prior relief funding) for “developing strategies and implementing public health protocols including, to the greatest extent practicable, policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the reopening and operation of school facilities to effectively maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff.” 

As mentioned in my call to Commissioner Morath on July 16 and Governor Abbott on August 6, we are eager to partner with Texas on any efforts to further our shared goals of protecting the health and safety of students and educators. In addition, the Department will continue to closely review and monitor whether Texas is meeting all of its Federal fiscal requirements. It’s critical that we do everything in our power to provide a safe environment for our students and staff to thrive. 

RELATED: VERIFY: Yes, more kids in Central Texas are getting COVID-19 due to the delta variant

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