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Federal education officials end their rift with Florida over school mask mandates

Pasco County Schools

The U.S. Department of Education dropped a cease-and-desist order after the state returned money it had been withholding from school districts that had since reversed their mask mandates.

A standoff between Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and federal education officials about student mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic has ended after school districts nixed mask mandates.

The U.S. Department of Education confirmed this week that a cease-and-desist complaint against Florida’s education department has been dropped.

The complaint, filed Oct. 28 in the federal education department’s Division of Administrative Law Judges, involved a dispute about the state withholding money from districts that required students to wear masks.

The State Board of Education approved penalizing districts financially, relying on a Sept. 22 rule from the Florida Department of Health that said the choice to require masks should be at the “sole discretion” of parents. The state withheld amounts equal to the salaries of county school-board members.

In response, the Biden administration launched a grant program dubbed Project SAFE, or Project to Support America’s Families and Educators, to make up for the lost state funds. But the state responded by withholding money from districts equal to the federal grants.

That led to the U.S. Department of Education filing the cease-and-desist complaint focused on Alachua and Broward counties. But after those and other districts ended mask mandates, the state returned withheld money — leading federal officials to drop the complaint.

“Following the state of Florida returning the withheld funds to local education agencies, the department withdrew the current cease-and-desist complaint. The department will continue to assist any state or local education agency to sustain safe in-person learning for all students,” Luke Jackson, a spokesman for the federal agency, said in an email Wednesday.

The state primarily battled this fall with eight districts — Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Leon, Orange, Duval, and Brevard — that required students to wear masks.

But in early November, citing steep drops in local coronavirus cases, the last of the eight districts came into compliance with the health department’s rule aimed at preventing mask requirements. The state education department on Nov. 29, returned nearly $878,000 to districts.

“The purpose of withholding funds from school districts was to ensure that all school districts comply with the law. Our position has always been that we would release withheld funds once districts demonstrated compliance,” Jared Ochs, a spokesman for the state education department, said in a statement Tuesday.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran during a Nov. 16 state board meeting warned districts not to reimpose mask mandates. DeSantis has long argued that parents should be able to decide whether children wear masks during the pandemic.

“It’s my hope that districts will continue to comply with Florida’s laws, including the Department of Health’s emergency rule. But should that change, we must vigorously defend the state’s authority to control its educational system,” Corcoran said.

Florida’s ban on school mask mandates was cemented in state law during a special legislative session in November. DeSantis signed a measure (HB 1B) that included a prohibition on vaccination and mask requirements in schools.

Ochs, in his statement Tuesday, reiterated that the state education department will continue to ensure school districts don’t reimpose mask requirements.

“We are glad that these districts have finally recognized that parents have the right to make personal and private health care and educational decisions for their children. The department will continue to make sure those rights are protected,” Ochs wrote.

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Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida