As the majority of Florida's K-12 schools prepare to reopen campuses at full capacity this week — many of them on Tuesday — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the State Board of Education could withhold pay from school leaders who implement mask mandates for students.
The move to potentially punish educators follows days of controversy during which school district superintendents and school board members seeking to comply with CDC guidelines ignored an executive order from DeSantis banning school districts from requiring students to wear face masks.
In a statement to CBS4, the governor's office said the State Board of Education may "narrowly tailor any financial consequences" for those who violate the law. It adds that the governor, who has opposed all face covering mandates since the start of the pandemic, is intent on protecting parents' rights.
"Ultimately — Education funding is for the students. The kids didn't make the decision to encroach upon parents' rights. So any financial penalties for breaking the rule would be targeted to those officials who made that decision," the governor's spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said in a tweet.
Teachers and other employees would not have their pay withheld.
"Only the salaries of those superintendents and school board members who intentionally defy the EO and the subsequent rules protecting parents' rights" could be affected by the latest directive, she explained.
Florida is ensnared in an alarming COVID-19 spike fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, making many pockets of the state dangerous hot spots. Case numbers are soaring and hospitals are filling up with COVID patients, including children.
As of Sunday, at least 135 children were hospitalized with the coronavirus.
Children 12 and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines, but Dr. Marcos Mestre, who works at the Niklaus Children's Foundation Hospital in Miami, told NPR all of the patients he has seen within that age range have not been inoculated.
Due to the highly contagious nature of the delta variant, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all students ages 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status. The agency also says students should maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance within the classroom to reduce transmission risk and recommends screening tests.
Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho responded to DeSantis' ominous threat on Monday afternoon. He said the fourth largest school district in the nation has established a plan made in consultation with health experts.
"At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees," Carvalho said.
He added: "I want to thank the Governor for recognizing that our students should not be penalized."