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Governors' efforts backfire as more locals defy anti-mask policies

Two Florida school districts agreed to defy DeSantis. State officials retaliated. Now four school districts are defying DeSantis.

When two school districts in Florida defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' (R) order banning mask mandates in schools, the state Board of Education took swift action, agreeing to sanction local officials. Education officials in Alachua and Broward counties are aware of the governor's policy, but they've decided to prioritize public health over the Republican's political agenda.

The consequences are likely to be significant, including possible funding cuts and the removal of local elected officials from their positions. For DeSantis and his allies, the purpose of the pushback is obvious: the state hopes to pressure Alachua and Broward counties into complying with the governor's dangerous policy, while discouraging other communities weighing their next moves.

What the DeSantis administration probably didn't expect was that the strategy would backfire. Not only are Alachua and Broward counties refusing to back down, as Politico reported, other communities have decided to join them.

Two of the largest school districts in Florida and the nation on Wednesday bucked the DeSantis administration by passing mask mandates for all students just one day after other school districts in the state were put on notice for taking similar action.... Despite pressure from the state Department of Education, the Miami-Dade and Hillsborough school boards voted to install stricter mask policies than the DeSantis administration wants. With schools already seeing thousands of Covid-19 cases this fall, local board members chose to disobey the state's GOP leadership, which is pushing for parents to have the ultimate decision on masks.

In other words, two school districts agreed to defy DeSantis; state officials retaliated; and now four school districts are defying DeSantis. [Update: As of this morning, the total is now up to five. See below.]

Florida isn't alone. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is pushing the same line in the Lone Star State, only to have multiple local school districts prioritize COVID protections over his agenda. As NPR reported, one community got especially creative.

A school district in northeast Texas has found a creative way to get around Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates. The Paris Independent School District will now require students to wear masks as part of its dress code. The Paris ISD board of trustees said in a statement that it "believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues" and amended it accordingly to protect the district's students and employees.

"The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees' exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district," the statement added. "Nothing in the Governor's Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority."

It's quite likely that the Republican governors of both states will move forward with plans to punish communities that are trying to curtail the spread of the virus during the pandemic, but federal officials are becoming increasingly engaged in the matter.

Indeed, 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.

The New York Times added that the administration is "sending letters to eight states -- Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah -- challenging their efforts to ban universal masking in schools."

I continue to find this entire fight rather strange. Circling back to our earlier coverage, this seems to be one of the easier policy disputes to resolve. There's a broad consensus that in much of the country, students benefit from being in classrooms. It's also widely understood that many kids, at least for now, are too young for vaccinations, which creates a COVID risk during the pandemic.

The simple, cheap, and effective solution is to open the schools, welcome the students, and have the kids wear masks to curtail the spread of the virus.

It's amazing to see so many Republican governors reject common sense so forcefully, apparently indifferent to the consequences.

Update: Schools in Florida's Palm Beach County has also agreed to defy DeSantis' order, bringing the new total of counties ignoring the governor to five. Note, because of the enormous size of the counties rejecting DeSantis' policy, roughly a third of the state's student population will now attend schools with mask mandates.