Feds move to block Florida’s school virus mask penalties

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Education asked an administrative judge on Thursday to block the state of Florida from slashing federal aid money to two school districts over their coronavirus mask mandates.

Federal education officials filed a complaint with the agency’s Office of Administrative Law Judges seeking a cease and desist order against Florida as well as a ruling that the state is in violation of federal law.

The filing comes a day after Alachua and Broward Counties said the state reduced their overall funding because they received federal grants meant to offset state penalties for their mask requirements.

“This action taken by the Department comes after we made repeated requests to work together and protect students, educators, and school communities,” said a U.S. Department of Education statement. “We believe Florida’s actions have violated federal law by reducing state funds based on the receipt by districts of federal funds.”

The legal action is the latest in a back-and-forth between Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the White House over coronavirus regulations. Separately on Thursday, DeSantis announced that the state had filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration over its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal contractors. DeSantis is eyeing a 2024 presidential run.

The state recently approved measures to dock the salaries of school board members in districts that defy the governor’s ban on mask mandates in classrooms and withhold funding to the districts if they receive federal grants intended to blunt the state penalties. The U.S. Department of Education this week sent a letter to Florida warning that it would move to stop the state from reducing funding to districts that receive the grant.

Florida’s ban on school mask mandates has drawn legal challenges but has remained in effect.

Jared Ochs, a spokesman for the Florida education department, issued a statement saying “Yes, we received another harassing and legally hollow letter from U.S. DOE, and again we will continue forward, lawfully, as we have this entire time.”