Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said Monday that public schools that impose mask mandates in defiance of state laws or executive orders can’t be denied federal funding, as the political battle over masking requirements in schools roils on.
Cardona’s remarks, made in an Aug. 22 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” come amid controversy over school mask mandates, which some states have banned while threatening to block some state funding to school districts defying the bans.
“We have to do everything in our power to keep them safe,” Cardona said in the interview, adding that he had spoken to superintendents in several districts embroiled in the mask mandate controversy to “let them know that we have their back.”
“And yes, they can draw down on the funds that were promised to them so they can safely reopen schools,” he said.
Cardona’s remarks come as governors and lawmakers in at least eight states—Florida, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah—have banned school districts from imposing mask mandates.
The Florida Board of Education on Friday moved to deduct the cost of school board members’ salaries from the state’s funding for two districts—Alachua and Broward—that have imposed mask mandates in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order (pdf) and the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which he signed into law in June. DeSantis’ order called on state agencies to create protocols in line with the Parents’ Bill of Rights that protect parents’ right to decide whether their children should wear masks.
Cardona was asked in the interview whether governors have the ability to block federal funds made available under the American Rescue Plan Act that Cardona said in a blog post last week were meant to help states “adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction.”
The Education Secretary replied: “They do have access to federal funds that they can draw down at any moment to make sure that schools are opening safely and that our students and staff have the confidence of returning to in-person learning. They do not have to get the green light from the governor to use these funds—they’re made available to them.”
He also said that the administration is prepared to probe states banning mask mandates through the Office for Civil Rights, a move President Joe Biden last week warned could be taken while urging Cardona “to take additional steps to protect our children.”
“This includes using his oversight authority and legal action, if appropriate, against governors trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators,” Biden said at a White House briefing on Aug. 18. “We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”
DeSantis reacted to Biden’s comments in an appearance on Fox News.
“He is obsessed with having the government force kindergarteners to wear masks all day in school,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, we believe that that’s the parents’ decision. Joe Biden thinks the federal government should come and overrule the parents and force these young kids to wear these masks.”
School districts forcing students to wear masks has become a contentious issue as several major studies have found masks on children were ineffective at reducing the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, the pathogen that causes the disease COVID-19.
One study from Yale University found that child care programs that remained open during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t contribute to the spread of the virus. And in April, a Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) study published in April found that children are at low risk of developing COVID-19 and also don’t play a significant role in the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, a study in March from the CDC found there were more virus-related illnesses in Florida school districts that didn’t implement mask-wearing, although the study found that at the time the instances of school-related COVID-19 cases were small statewide.
Jack Phillips contributed to this report.