On Wednesday, three Florida county school boards voted to require nearly all of their students to wear masks at school. Now at least five school boards, some in the state’s most populous areas, have mask mandates that openly defy an order from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis seeking to make masks optional in schools.
“If the consequence is ultimately my job, my salary, I’m willing to accept that, but I’m not willing to bend on my conviction,” Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said about prioritizing students’ health over DeSantis’s order.
It’s not yet clear how far the governor and his allies will go in retaliating against pro-mask officials like Carvalho, but pro-mask counties like Miami-Dade also have a powerful ally on their side: President Joe Biden.
After state-level officials threatened to withhold funding from counties with masking requirements — in a particularly snarky move, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran suggested withholding an amount of funding equal to the salaries of the county superintendent and its school board members — the White House announced that federal funds could be used to make school districts whole if they are punished for requiring masks.
“Our priority must be the safety of students, families, educators, and staff in our school communities,” Biden said in a memo to the Department of Education, which directs Secretary Miguel Cardona to “assess all available tools” that can prevent governors from interfering with student health.
Because children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, masks are one of the most effective tools that can slow the spread of Covid in schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, multi-layer cloth masks can block up to 50-70 percent of fine droplets known to spread the virus.
It’s a high-stakes fight concerning who gets to decide whether to protect children’s health. As the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein notes, the fight between DeSantis and several of Florida’s urban counties is a fight about “red state preemption” — a common practice in which Republican-led states invalidate progressive policies in cities and other localities led by Democrats. And this fight is all the more complicated because the federal government is willing to spend its own funds to undermine DeSantis’s attack on public health.
If the pro-mask counties prevail, moreover, that’s likely to embolden school boards in other states that forbid mask mandates. At least seven other states — Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah — have state-level policies forbidding masking requirements in schools. School districts in at least some of these states have started to resist anti-masking policies as well — a district in Texas, for example, attempted to require masks by making them part of a dress code. (On Thursday, Texas temporarily dropped enforcement of its ban on mask mandates, after a state supreme court ruling.)
This is a fight over the health and lives of children. Although severe cases are uncommon among children, they are not unheard of. And a very small percentage of children infected with Covid-19 die from the disease.
How did Florida get to this point?
Ron DeSantis is a frequent guest on Fox News, and a close ally of former President Donald Trump. DeSantis is also widely perceived to have presidential ambitions, garnering a national profile, and far-right support, as an outspoken opponent of many public health measures intended to slow the spread of Covid-19.
His resistance to public health measures has been disastrous for the state of Florida, however. Florida currently has the second-highest per capita rate of Covid infections in the United States, falling just behind Mississippi. Over 16,000 people in Florida are hospitalized with Covid, as of Wednesday. The state is close to running out of hospital beds. One Florida paramedic told BuzzFeed News that “we’re stacking patients in the hallways, stacking patients in the waiting room.”
DeSantis, meanwhile, has largely framed his opposition to school mask mandates as an issue of parental rights. In late June, DeSantis signed a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” into law, which limits state and local governments’ power to “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child.” A month later, DeSantis cited that law in an executive order purporting to ensure “parents’ freedom to choose” whether their child should wear a mask at school.
Although DeSantis’s July 30 order does not forbid children from wearing masks, it instructs the Florida Health and Education Departments to impose rules preventing school districts from “violat[ing] parents’ right under Florida law to make health care decisions for their minor children” — such as the decision to not wear a mask.
Additionally, the order instructs Education Commissioner Corcoran to withhold “state funds from noncompliant school boards.”
These policies are unpopular. According to an early August poll of likely Florida voters, 62 percent believe that “masks should be required for all children.” Less than a third of voters agreed with DeSantis that masks should not be mandated.
DeSantis’s order also had predictable results. Before Hillsborough County implemented its mask requirement, more than 8,000 of its students were in quarantine or isolation due to possible exposure to Covid (although some of these exposures occurred off campus). At the school board meeting instituting the mask mandate in Hillsborough, health providers warned that a mandate is needed because emergency rooms are “drowning in patients.”
Though some parents at the Hillsborough meeting echoed DeSantis’s rhetoric about parental rights — one anti-mask parent claimed that they “know what’s best for my children” — others demanded that the school board protect their children.
“I was in a hospital room,” said one mother who had lost a child to a disease other than Covid, and who didn’t want other children to die. “I had doctors tell me we did everything we can. I’ve been with a dead child before. We can save these children.”
Even before students started returning to school, moreover, Florida had some of the highest rates of child Covid infections in the country. As of Thursday morning, only two pediatric ICU beds are available in all of Broward County.
Can DeSantis be stopped?
The federal government recently suggested that it may take legal action against states that block mask requirements in schools. In a letter sent to several state governors, US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona argued that school districts that accepted certain federal funds are legally obligated to require masks.
“The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021,” Cardona writes, requires all school districts that received federal pandemic aid under that act “to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services.”
The federal Education Department’s policies clarify that these plans must “maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff” and include “a description of any such policies, on” each of several safety requirements laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of those safety requirements is “universal and correct wearing of masks.”
It is well established that the federal government may impose conditions on state and local governments that accept federal funding — although there are some constitutional limits on this authority and any lawsuit seeking to enforce such conditions would be heard by a federal judiciary dominated by conservatives. States may also be able to evade such conditions by returning the relevant funding that they received under the American Rescue Plan.
The bottom line is that, while the Biden administration is hinting at legal action against states with anti-masking policies, it could face a long and uncertain legal fight if it wants to ensure that children throughout the country wear masks to school. Meanwhile, the delta variant will continue to spread throughout the nation — potentially infecting thousands of schoolchildren.