Washington, Aug 11 (IANS) The White House has said it is exploring ways to support schools in Florida that are facing financial retribution as a result of defying the state's ban on mask mandates.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told a daily press conference that the Biden administration was looking to support schools in the southern US state that "do the right thing" when it came to masking, praising Florida school leaders for showing "courage" and "boldness" as they sought "to protect students and keep schools safe and open."
Psaki's remarks on Tuesday followed days of controversy during which Florida Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold the salaries of those school leaders who defied the governor's earlier executive order banning school districts from issuing mask mandates at a time when students in the state are returning to schools for the fall semester, Xinhua reported.
"We are continuing to look for ways... for the US government to support districts and schools as they try to follow the science, do the right thing and save lives," Psaki said.
"I would note what is publicly available and knowable is that the American Rescue Plan funds that were distributed to Florida to provide assistance to schools have not yet been distributed from the state level," she said. "They're federal funds and... they're under federal discretion, so they just need to be distributed to these schools."
Asked about the issue at his own press conference on Tuesday, Biden said he's checking if it is within the presidential power to intervene in the state mask bans.
He said the anti-mask efforts by states including Florida and Texas were "totally counterintuitive and, quite frankly, disingenuous."
As of Monday, superintendents of at least two Florida counties, namely Leon and Alachua, have come forward with their plans to enforce mask mandates, directly defying an emergency rule by the Florida Department of Health under DeSantis's direction that school districts must allow parents to decide whether their children will wear masks.
DeSantis's reasoning is that mandating mask-wearing for children infringes on parents' right under Florida law to make decisions about their children's health and education.
In implementing the mask mandates, however, the school leaders cited the latest surge in Covid-19 cases brought about by the Delta variant that not only made Florida the national epicentre of the pandemic in terms of overall infections, but also saw the state leading the country in the number of children hospitalized for contracting the virus.
"If, heaven forbid, we lost a child to this virus, I can't just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida," Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said when announcing that children from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade will be required to wear masks when classes resume Wednesday in Tallahassee, seat of the county and also capital of the state.
As of Monday, 179 pediatric Covid-19 patients were hospitalized in Florida, which leads the entire nation, and Texas came in second with 161 such cases, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.