The Florida Department of Education has withheld money from two school districts that made masks mandatory in classrooms this fall, state officials announced Monday, fulfilling a threat that local school boards that required students to wear masks would be financially punished.
The announcement is the latest twist in a political fight over masking in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued a ban on masks in schools in July but was beaten back by a judge last week.
“We are going to fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children,” Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “They know what is best for their children.”
The penalty applies to two school districts — Alachua County and Broward County — that continued to hold mask mandates in violation of the governor’s order.
It was not immediately clear how much money had been withheld, or what funding had been struck.
The department had indicated that it would withhold a monthly amount equal to the salary of the school administrators. In Alachua County, members earn about $40,000 a year, and in Broward County, they earn about $46,000, according to the state legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
However, because the state does not pay the salaries of local officials, it cannot withhold the salaries directly. Mr Corcoran had previously said he could recommend withholding money “in an amount equal to the salaries of the inspector and all members of the school board.”
On Monday, his department said counties had been ordered to cut school board fees — and nothing else.
But its practical effect remains unclear. The Biden administration has advised that any school district deprived of state funding due to an impact on pandemic precautions could use federal stimulus funds to make up for the difference.
In a statement, Broward County said it would continue to maintain its mask mandates.
The Florida Department of Education and the Alachua School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Florida is experiencing the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation. More than 16,000 people have been hospitalized per day on average in the past seven days, more than during any other period of the pandemic.
Last week, a judge ruled against Governor DeSantis, ruling that Florida school districts may impose mask mandates on students to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The judge also issued an injunction blocking the state’s education ministry from punishing local school boards.
The Ministry of Education planned to appeal and announced Monday that the funding had been withheld.
The fines would continue monthly until school boards comply, the department said.