DeSantis's office: School board salaries could be withheld if they defy the state ban on mask mandates for students

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

If you’re going to have a ban, you need a way to enforce that ban. A few days ago Florida’s Board of Ed smacked pro-mandate local school officials by authorizing private-school vouchers for kids in public schools whose district is requiring them to mask up. Days before that, DeSantis threatened to withhold funding from school districts that defied his ban on mandates. Today his office added that school board members might — not will, but might — be hit in the wallet themselves by having their salaries withheld if they press ahead with mandatory masking in defiance of his orders.

This is a good battle for him to have with respect to his 2024 Republican aspirations. “He fights!” I’m not sure it’s a good battle for him to have with respect to his 2022 gubernatorial reelection. The worse COVID gets in Florida, the more perilous it’ll be for him to be seen crusading against a precaution for kids which most public health experts have endorsed.

And things aren’t great in Florida at the moment:

DeSantis’s office gave this statement to a local CBS affiliate:

“With respect to enforcing any financial consequences for noncompliance of state law regarding these rules and ultimately the rights of parents to make decisions about their children’s education and health care decisions, it would be the goal of the State Board of Education to narrowly tailor any financial consequences to the offense committed. For example, the State Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law.

“Education funding is intended to benefit students first and foremost, not systems. The Governor’s priorities are protecting parents’ rights and ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education that meets their unique needs.”

He keeps turning up the pressure on school districts to comply with his order because the intensity of their resistance is increasing. Two school districts, Leon and Alachua, have announced that they’re ordering mask mandates locally notwithstanding DeSantis’s ban because they believe the state of the crisis requires doing everything they can to protect kids.

The superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools has an op-ed in WaPo today defending her own decision to disobey the order:

My district is experiencing a dramatic spike in the number of employees testing positive for covid-19, and school hasn’t even started. We’ve had more cases reported in the past two weeks than in the previous five months combined. Tragically, two of our employees died from covid-related complications just over a week ago. Many others are quarantined and unable to work, and the numbers keep rising. If these trends continue, we may not have the workforce we need to operate our schools safely…

During a lengthy school board meeting last week, many local doctors and health-care professionals shared alarming news about the spread of the virus in our county, which is under a state of emergency. They talked about record-breaking case numbers and hospitalizations, even among previously healthy children. They told us about intensive care units at or over capacity, emergency response teams stretched thin and medical procedures delayed…

Certainly we’re concerned about the threat of lost funding, but it shouldn’t come to that. After all, we want what DeSantis wants: to keep schools open and our kids in the classroom. The past year has proved that in-person learning is best for the vast majority of students. Through universal masking we can limit the number of students and teachers out sick or in quarantine, which means more instructional time and better educational outcomes.

She’s so committed to the policy that she touts the voucher program in her piece for any parents who can’t tolerate the thought of their kids having to mask for awhile. In Alachua they’re going to start with two weeks of masking; in Leon they’re going to do it until Labor Day and then re-assess. That means it’s DeSantis’s move on whether to play hardball with them now or ride it out for a few weeks in hopes that Florida’s crises abates, giving the districts a chance to lift their mandates voluntarily.

Late this afternoon, Miami’s school superintendent also issued a statement saying he won’t bend to threats:

DeSantis is in an uncomfortable spot. If he cracks down he risks showing swing voters that his priorities are out of whack, choosing to engage on a culture-war battle over masks during a health crisis in which most doctors support school mandates due to the unknowns about Delta. If he doesn’t crack down by penalizing the local officials defying him he risks looking weak to Republican national primary voters, the last thing a potential successor to Trump can afford to be. Greg Abbott’s in the same position in Texas, as the Dallas public school system has vowed to defy his own ban on school mask mandates. Local school officials there and in Florida are gambling that parents will rally to their side as they proclaim themselves defenders of their children’s health.

A poll published last week found that 62 percent of Floridians support mask mandates in schools:

Ahead of DeSantis’ school mask order, the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an unambiguous argument for face coverings and distancing, citing the fact that vaccines aren’t yet available for children younger than 12. The school year begins as soon as next week in some districts.

Among Democrats, 84% support mask mandates, while 66% of independents also support such a requirement. However, 39% of Republicans also support mask mandates, a significant share for what has become a political issue.

The poll marks a significant change from a year ago, when polls showed 79% of registered voters supported statewide mask orders. Unlike the current situation, vaccines weren’t widely available in July 2020, but Florida was similarly experiencing a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

The survey was conducted by St. Pete’s Polls, which had DeSantis losing the gubernatorial election by five points in its final survey of the 2018 race so take the results with a grain of salt. But if they have 62 percent in favor of mandates, it’s a safe bet that a majority of Floridians support them. It’s an equally safe gamble that the longer Florida’s crisis drags on and the more reports of pediatric hospitals filling up circulate, the stronger that support will get. DeSantis is at some political risk here, especially if there’s a surge of infections among students during their first weeks back in class.

Would his opposition to mandates be to blame for that? Not necessarily, as parents can still choose to mask their kids under his order. But it would make things easy for Democrats who are eager to take him down by holding him responsible for all of Florida’s COVID misfortunes. Even some conservatives like Bill Cassidy have questioned why DeSantis won’t simply defer to local authorities, the sort of decentralized government that Republicans usually favor.

Here’s the sort of messaging he’s up against right now. It may be true that the U.S. would ban travel from Florida if it was another country at the moment but that’s been true of nearly all states at one point or another during the pandemic. We would have banned travel to and from the People’s Republic of California last winter too during their surge.