The U.S. education secretary is backing Texas school district leaders who are defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools.
Secretary Miguel A. Cardona wrote Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath Friday, saying that attempts to bar district leaders from requiring masks “may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators,” as they develop instruction plans required under federal law.
Representatives for the governor and TEA could not immediately be reached for comment.
Abbott’s action cuts against the federal law that bestowed billions in pandemic aid to school districts to help students rebound from the pandemic and reopen safely, Cardona wrote in the letter.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which funneled $11.2 billion to Texas schools, requires that each school district receiving money adopt a plan for a safe return to in-person instruction.
The U.S. Department of Education stipulated that these plans must describe how schools can maintain student and staff safety and show what policies have been adopted in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has recommended universal masking in school, regardless of vaccination status.
“The Department is concerned that Texas’ actions could limit each [school system]’s ability … to adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction,” Cardona wrote.
The education secretary stressed that each school system can choose to use their federal funds for contact tracing, implementing mask requirements and other policies aligned with CDC’s guidance.
Dallas ISD was the first district to formally flout the governor’s order and say that it would once again require masks on its campuses. Children under 12 — essentially all students in pre-K through sixth grade — are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. A spike in coronavirus cases, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, has coincided with the start of the new school year.
Since DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa’s announcement, dozens of other districts have followed suit. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins later prevailed in a preliminary court fight to once again require masks in schools, businesses and county buildings.
Meanwhile, in Tarrant County, a judge blocked Fort Worth ISD from implementing its own mask mandate.
Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have stood firm, vowing to take the fight to higher courts. They argue it should be up to individual Texans to choose to wear a mask.
“This isn’t the first time we have dealt with activist characters. It’s deja vu all over again,” Paxton said in an earlier statement. “Attention-grabbing judges and mayors have defied executive orders before, when the pandemic first started, and the courts ruled on our side — the law.”
The state education agency, led by Morath, has largely stayed out of the latest fight — at least publicly. Agency officials issued a statement Thursday saying that in light of the conflict, it would refrain from issuing updated public health guidance.
Cardona wrote that the education department recognizes that several districts in Texas have already moved to adopt policies in line with CDC guidance, in spite of state mandates.
“The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction,” he wrote.
The education secretary hinted earlier this week at his concerns about the way Abbott has handled the pandemic.
“I spoke to Governor Abbott and he recognized the importance of vaccinations,” Cardona said during a Wednesday webinar. “I did share my concerns about the policies that are not in alignment with the CDC and the importance of making sure that our schools are safe for our students.”
Cardona also wrote to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Friday over the state’s prohibition on mask mandates. Florida’s Republican governor has threatened to withhold hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds from school districts that violate the governor’s order, according to reporting by The Miami Herald.
Cardona said he was deeply concerned over DeSantis’ threatened financial consequences.
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