TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The war of words between Washington and Tallahassee over masks and kids in school continued Tuesday with Governor Ron DeSantis’ office firing back at the White House after receiving criticism for how it has handled the COVID-19 surge.
Governor DeSantis and President Joe Biden have been critical of each other in the press since Florida banned mask mandates in schools without giving parents a choice to opt-out of the mandate. The White House has encouraged masks in schools as the delta variant spreads uncontrollably in Florida and has been critical of the action, or perceived lack of action, by DeSantis.
Tuesday, the White House responded to a plan floated by DeSantis’ administration to withhold pay for administrators and school board members if they violate the order banning mask mandates.
“Well, I do want to call out the, uh, the courage and the boldness of a number of leaders in Florida, including in Miami Dade County people who are stepping up. To do the right thing to protect students and keep schools safe and open,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Psaki continued and opened the door for possible federal help if DeSantis’ administration penalized districts for a mandate on masks.
“I would note, what is publicly available and knowable is that the American rescue plan funds that were distributed to Florida to provide assistance to schools have not yet been distributed from the state level,” Psaki said. “So the question is, why not? and those can be used to cover expenses that come up in this period of time. they’re federal funds and they're not under there under federal discretion, so they just need to be distributed to the schools were looking into what's possible in simple terms.”
The bottom line, from the White House, was to follow the public health guidelines or “get out of the way and let public officials let local officials do their job to keep students safe.”
DeSantis’ office pushed back against the White House, but in a statement, didn’t indicate they could fight a decision from the White House to pay salaries of those who may be penalized under Florida’s mask mandate ban.
“It is surprising that the White House would rather spend money for the salaries of superintendents and elected politicians, who don’t believe that parents have a right to choose what’s best for their children, than on Florida’s students, which is what these funds should be used for,” Taryn Fenske, spokesperson for Governor DeSantis told ABC Action News.
DeSantis’ office also addressed the funding mentioned by the White House during Tuesday’s press briefing.
Regarding funding, Florida opened schools for in-person instruction first, with more students in-person and a greater focus on closing achievement gaps in safe learning environments than any other state in the nation last year. Governor DeSantis allocated more than $1.4 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to keep schools open and make sure they could cover their expenses, and Florida school districts also received nearly $700 million from the CARES Act (ESSER I).
Some Florida school districts recently alerted us that they needed to transition to spending from CRRSA Act (ESSER II) funds. The notion that districts need to begin tapping into ARP Act (ESSER III) funds is premature by months, if not longer. Instead, Florida’s school leaders should be commended for making ESSER I funds last through the 2020-2021 school year and managing these resources wisely.
It would be irresponsible to wastefully rush to spend these dollars before they are needed, as these funds are intended to address the full needs of educational recovery over multiple fiscal years.