Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) created a policy that seemed surprisingly hostile toward the public's interests: no matter how severe the COVID-19 crisis in the Sunshine State became, local school districts could not require mask protections. Those who prioritized public health over the Republican's political agenda would be sanctioned.
Education officials in Alachua and Broward counties were aware of the governor's policy, but prioritized safety. This morning, the Florida Board of Education nevertheless gave local education officials until Sunday to comply with DeSantis' order, whether it makes sense or not.
In a letter sent to the Broward County School Board on Friday, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said both Broward County and Alachua County must comply within 48 hours before both counties could face sanctions.
Corcoran said in a statement, "We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow."
Or put another way, if Florida's governor settles on a policy that puts families at risk during a pandemic, it's up to educators to go along, regardless of the public-health consequences.
And what happens on Sunday? Broward and Alachua Counties have also been ordered to produce information on school-board members' compensation.
The DeSantis administration's statement read in part, "The Florida Department of Education will then begin to withhold from state funds, on a monthly basis, an amount equal to 1/12 of the total annual compensation of the school board members who voted to impose the unlawful mask mandates until each district demonstrates compliance."
Corcoran added that these penalties would be the "initial consequences," suggesting other penalties will follow.
I have no idea whether local officials will back down in the face of these threats, but there's every reason to believe the Florida Board of Education will have to start making related threats to other communities: the Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach Counties' school boards voted this week to impose stricter mask policies. The Orange and Sarasota County school boards may soon follow.
A DeSantis administration may very well go after each of them.
It's worth noting for context that we're talking about enormous school districts. Looking over the list of the largest school districts in the United States, Miami-Dade is fourth in the nation. Broward is sixth, Hillsborough is seventh, Orange is ninth, and Palm Beach is tenth.
With student populations this large, curtailing COVID-19 infections in these schools would have a significant impact on the state's overall totals.
Federal intervention remains a possibility. President Biden spoke from the White House yesterday, announcing that he'd directed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to "use all of his authority, and legal action, if appropriate," to deter states from banning universal masking in classrooms.
"We're not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators from protecting our children," the Democrat said. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain echoed the sentiment this morning.
Watch this space.
Update: NBC News confirmed this afternoon that U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and White House officials are urging local school administrators in Florida -- who are now facing loss of income for defying state rules barring mask mandates -- hold the line.
In fact, Cardona has directly communicated with local officials in the state, suggesting there may be federal reimbursement funds available.