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Biden Calls Broward Schools Chief As Feds Raise Concern Over State Mask Rules

 The U.S. Department of Education is raising concerns about Florida preventing school districts from requiring students to wear masks.
The U.S. Department of Education is raising concerns about Florida preventing school districts from requiring students to wear masks.

Letters from Secretary Miguel Cardona said the administration will work with districts and educators directly if the Florida Department of Education does not distribute federal pandemic aid.

President Joe Biden called Broward County's interim schools superintendent on Saturday, praising her for doing “the right thing” after the school board implemented mask requirements in defiance of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis amid growing COVID-19 infections.

The White House said in a statement that Biden spoke with Broward Interim Superintendent Vickie Carftwright and thanked her for her leadership leadership and to discuss their shared commitment to getting all students back in safe, full-time in-person instruction this school year.

The call comes a day after the U.S. Department of Education secretary wrote to DeSantis and expressed concern about the governor's executive order on school mask mandates.

“Florida’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 puts students and staff at risk,” Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote to DeSantis and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

The letter also said the administration will work with districts and educators directly if the Florida Department of Education does not distribute federal pandemic aid to the districts. Cardona wrote that the federal American Rescue Plan Act signed by Biden in March allocated some $7 billion to support Florida schools.

Florida has not submitted a plan to the federal government about how it intends to spend federal relief money earmarked for schools, though the issue is on the agenda for a Board of Education meeting Wednesday. Plans were due June 7.

“In fact, it appears that Florida has prioritized threatening to withhold state funds from school districts that are working to reopen schools safely rather than protecting students and educators and getting school districts the federal pandemic recovery funds to which they are entitled,” Cardona said in the letter.

In a separate letter to Florida district superintendents Friday, Cardona wrote that the U.S. Department of Education “stands with you” in enacting universal student mask policies despite the state’s efforts to prohibit them.

Broward and Alachua county school districts advised Corcoran this past week that they intend to follow through with plans to enact indoor mask requirements for students with exceptions only when parents submit doctors’ notes.

State education officials have argued the policies violate a Florida Department of Health rule that helped carry out DeSantis’ July 30 executive order that parents make decisions for their children regarding the wearing of masks, essentially banning districts from implementing mandates.

Corcoran wrote letter Tuesday to Broward and Alachua school officials that threatened to withhold funding to school districts “in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board” if the districts moved forward with requiring doctors’ notes.

In its response letter Friday, Broward district officials argued that its schools are taking “prudent and responsible measures” to mitigate COVID- 19 with the mask requirement.

The district also contended that it is in compliance with the health department’s rule because students will be able to take off masks when eating, “actively participating in an indoor or outdoor practice or competition,” receiving necessary medical care or experiencing trouble breathing.

Cartwright and Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood, who signed the district’s response letter, said local hospitals have been “overwhelmed with new COVID-19 patients.”

The school officials also urged Corcoran to “seriously consider the appropriateness” of withholding funds to the district, arguing such a move would “represent a reduction to the general fund allocation and may impact services to students.”

The state Board of Education has scheduled an emergency meeting Tuesday “to consider the compliance of school districts, including Broward and Alachua” with the health department rule and a new state law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” according to a notice of the meeting.

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