Education Department Battles Fla. on Masks in Schools, with CDC ‘Shield’ in Play

Frank Ferreri

Washington, DC ( – Throughout the pandemic, employers concerned about the potential fallout from COVID-19 spreading through their workplaces have turned to CDC guidance on the issue of masks for workers and the public they come into contact with. The same has been true with schools, with the U.S. Education Department emphasizing strategies that aim to limit the virus’ impact on educators and staff.

But as political tensions mount over masks in schools, the department has weighed in more heavily on the issue, looking to answer Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to prohibit mask mandates for schools with an Aug. 13 letter from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to DeSantis and Florida’s Commissioner of Education, Richard Corcoran, declaring support for CDC-following school districts in a way that might also be consistent with a “shield law” the Sunshine State passed earlier this year.

$7 Billion

In the letter, Cardona takes aim at DeSantis’ directive that superintendents or school board members would lose pay for imposing mask mandates in schools and expresses backing for districts that have required masks despite the governor’s threat.

Cardona noted that Florida receives more than $7 billion to support students and educators through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund and that ESSER money may be used for activities that are necessary to maintain the operation and continuity of services in school districts and in continuing to employ existing school staff.

“This includes paying the full salaries of educators (including superintendents) and school board members, regardless of whether the State moves to withhold some of their salary as Florida is threatening,” Cardona wrote, while also suggesting that the state is overdue for allocating ESSER funds to districts.

Additionally, Cardona pointed out that ESSER recipients must adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and the plan must spell out how a district “will maintain the health and safety of students, educators, and other staff and the extent to which it has adopted policies, and a description of any such policies, on each of the following safety recommendations established by the CDC,” which includes universal mask wearing indoors.

Following Rules

Given the state’s stance on mask mandates, Cardona expressed concern that Florida districts would not be able to meet the department’s rules for adopting a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction.

Although not addressed by Cardona’s letter, in March, DeSantis signed into law SB 72, which provides a “shield” for schools and other entities facing COVID-19 lawsuits if they make a good-faith effort to follow “authoritative or controlling government-issued health standards or guidance.”

The practical effect of that law limits liability for entities that stick to CDC guidance – including mask recommendations — in their COVID mitigation efforts. For schools, the latest CDC statement reads, “Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” which is at odds with DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.

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