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Florida schools facing punishments for defying DeSantis on masks

The most contentious political fight in the country right now is between Team DeSantis and local educators trying to protect kids during a pandemic.

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At face value, it seems common sense should resolve the debate over mask requirements in schools. 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.

Fortunately, there's a simple, cheap, and effective solution: open the schools, welcome the students, and have the kids wear masks to curtail the spread of the virus.

Alas, common sense appears to be in short supply among some leading officials in Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) declared that local school districts cannot create mask requirements, even as COVID-19 slams Florida in devastating ways, because ... well, just because. When some communities said they would prioritize public health over the governor's policy, the Republican threatened the salaries of local school superintendents.

That didn't work out well -- DeSantis, it turns out, doesn't have that kind of authority -- but as NBC News reported overnight, the governor's administration isn't done targeting school districts trying to protect children.

The Florida Board of Education voted Tuesday to sanction two public school districts for defying Gov. Ron DeSantis' order banning mask mandates in schools. The actual penalties by the board, which comprises DeSantis appointees, are yet to be determined, but the votes marked the first punishments for districts that chose to mandate masks amid a surge in Covid cases from the delta variant of the coronavirus as the school year gets underway.

There was a lengthy hearing yesterday focused on Alachua and Broward county public school districts, which are ignoring the governor's order. Local officials stressed the importance of public health and safety, while state officials emphasized following established rules by the governor, no matter what.

At the conclusion of the hearing, state officials, including DeSantis-appointed Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, concluded that the counties' mask requirements are in violation of state law. It's an open question as to what, exactly, will happen to the local communities and their schools, but the state Board of Education endorsed an investigation and opened the door to punishments -- which could include financial penalties. It's also possible local elected officials could be removed from their positions for having defied the governor's policy.

Looking ahead, it's worth noting two related elements of this story. First, if the DeSantis administration believes its tactics are proving effective, it's mistaken: Politico reported, "[E]ven as these counties were hounded for opposing DeSantis, school leaders in other counties -- including Miami-Dade, Florida's largest school district -- are considering their own mask mandates to battle the coronavirus, signaling that the weekslong battle over face coverings in Florida is far from finished."

And second, there may yet be a federal component to this. Axios reported this past weekend that the Biden administration's Department of Education is preparing to reimburse Florida officials who are punished by the DeSantis administration over mask requirements in schools.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran pushed back yesterday against the Biden administration's possible intervention, but there's little to suggest federal officials care.

All of which suggests the most contentious political fight in the country right now is between Team DeSantis and educators trying to protect kids during a pandemic. Watch this space.