As school districts in Florida resist efforts to ban masks in schools amid a surge in Covid cases, the Biden administration has said it will consider supporting education leaders who are financially penalised for taking such action by the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis.
On Tuesday the Broward county school board in Florida, one of the largest in the state, became the latest to flout an order by DeSantis outlawing mask requirements. Earlier this week the governor said he would permit the state board of education to withhold payment of school district leaders who implemented mask mandates.
The threat prompted a response from the Biden administration, which is considering reimbursing school officials who lose their pay if DeSantis follows through on his threat.
“We’re continuing to look into what our options are to help protect and help support these teachers and administrators who are taking steps to protect the people in their communities,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters on Tuesday.
DeSantis stood by his statewide order banning mask mandates on Tuesday, saying it would allow parents to decide whether to mask their children for class.
“It’s about parental choice, not government mandate, and I think ultimately, parents will be able to exercise the choices that they deem appropriate for their kids,” DeSantis said at a briefing.
The Republican is closely tied to Donald Trump, and has become a national figure for opposing pandemic restrictions, even as Florida has become a hotbed of infections and hospitalizations have hit record levels.
DeSantis is widely believed to be weighing a potential 2024 challenge for the presidency.
Florida is one of a number of states attempting to implement blanket bans on masks, despite surging cases of Covid-19 driven by the highly contagious Delta variant and low rates of vaccination.
In Texas, the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, issued an order in May banning masks in schools. But a number of school districts, including the Dallas Independent school district, have said they will require masks when students return from vacation.
On Tuesday schools in Bexar county and Dallas county won a temporary court victory against Abbott, overriding the governor’s order.
Earlier this week Abbott appealed for out-of-state help to fight the third wave of Covid in Texas while a county-owned hospital in Houston raised tents to accommodate their Covid-19 overflow.
The acts of rebellion on masks by school officials in Florida and Texas come as these states – along with Louisiana, Arkansas and others – are flooded with new cases after people resisted vaccines and mask mandates. Teachers and administrators are seeking to protect students – especially those under 12 years old, who cannot get vaccinated.
Based on population, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas are leading the nation in new cases and the number of Covid patients in hospitals. Texas is not far behind.
In Arkansas, where only eight intensive care beds were available for Covid patients on Monday, the Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, said he regrets supporting a ban on mask mandates in his state.
In Florida, where nearly one out of every three hospital beds are occupied by a coronavirus patient, a surgeon in Orlando said hospitals in the area were “overflowing” with the unvaccinated.
“We need a field hospital. Please help us,” Sam Atallah, a surgeon at AdventHealth wrote on Twitter on Monday. “We are in a state of emergency in Orlando.”
In Dallas, where some school staff had threatened to quit if masks were not mandated to protect children, teachers and others, school district officials said they did not believe the governor’s order should be applied to them. Schools in Austin also plan to require masks.
“Governor Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students,” the Dallas district said on its website.
Reuters contributed to this report
This story’s headline was updated on Monday August 23 to reflect that the bans are against mandatory mask orders