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Feds Ready To Investigate Florida Schools If Student Right To Safe Education Violated

Virus Outbreak School Masks
Chris O'Meara
/
AP
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 file photo, Students wearing protective masks walk past a "Welcome Back" sign before the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. Students are required to wear the masks at school unless their parents opt out. President Joe Biden has called school district superintendents in Florida, praising them for doing what he called “the right thing” after their respective boards implemented mask requirements in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis amid growing COVID-19 infections.

The federal government is ready to look into the reopening of public schools in Florida as Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran pressure school districts that have approved student mask mandates, despite the governor banning such requirements.

"Our Office for Civil Rights is prepared to take on any investigation necessary to support the safe reentry into schools if allegations that students rights to a free, appropriate public education are being violated," said U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Friday on the Florida Roundup.

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The warning comes after President Joe Biden ordered Cardona Wednesday to “take action” against governors who have banned mask mandates.

Four of the five largest public school districts in Florida, with more than 1 million students combined, now require students to wear masks in their classrooms. The only exemption is through a note from a doctor.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is the largest district in the state and, on Wednesday, the school board voted 7-1 to require students with a doctor's note to wear masks. School starts on Monday in Miami-Dade.

Palm Beach County's school board reversed course Wednesday and approved its own mask requirement. Since school began on Aug. 10 in Palm Beach County the school district has reported more than 1,100 positive COVID-19 cases — most of those cases are students.

"It really boils down to student safety and making sure we're protecting our students and our staff. We know [after] last year when we reopen schools that it's really important for local school leaders and local health officials to be able to use everything that they can to keep children safe," said Cardona.

Miguel Cardona
Susan Walsh/AP
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Secretary Cardona sent an open letter to Gov. DeSantis and Commissioner Corcoran a week ago. It said the federal agency supported local districts that had adopted mask policies in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. It also criticized the state for not allocating federal funds from the American Rescue Plan for local schools.

"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," read the letter.

"We distributed the funds in March and districts should have these funds already," said Cardona, during Friday's program. "I don't understand what the delay is."

Our Office for Civil Rights is prepared to take on any investigation necessary to support the safe reentry into schools.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona

Also Friday, Corcoran announced he was following through on his earlier threat to withhold funding from school districts with stringent mask policies. The school boards of Broward and Alachua counties were given 48 hours to comply with the Parents Bill of Rights state law or risk losing money equal to their board members' salaries. The superintendents of those districts told the state's Board of Education this week they did not believe their mask policies violate state law.

"What we're seeing in some places across the country is that local control is being taken away by state governments. And that goes against not only local control, but that goes against what we know works for students," Cardona said before Corcoran's announcement. “What we’re finding is where there is an overextension of reach, it is putting students away. And that’s the case in Florida.”

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.