Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wasn’t content to simply court the 30% of Americans who oppose in-school mask mandates. That was a tad too mainstream to reach the Republican fringes DeSantis hopes will catapult him to the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
So the state Board of Education appointed by DeSantis voted unanimously Tuesday to punish school districts in Broward and Alachua counties that defied his ban on in-school mask mandates. But taking punitive action against local mask mandates is also a uniquely unpopular position with the public. In fact, fresh polling from Ipsos-Axios this week showed that just 22% of respondents supported enacting punishments such as withholding funding from school districts or local governments that require masking. The survey also found that 69% of Americans support in-school mask mandates.
The board did not immediately specify the exact punishment, saying it would come after further examination. DeSantis had threatened to cut salaries of school officials that ignore his order, but his office has since determined he doesn’t have the authority to follow through.
Broward County Public Schools have already lost three educators to COVID-19 just before the start of the school year—all were reportedly unvaccinated.
Since schools reopened in Florida, thousands of students are already isolating or quarantining due to COVID-19 exposure. In fact, more than 8,000 students from one county alone—Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes Tampa—are currently sequestered due to the delta surge and potential COVID exposure.
But school officials in Broward and Alachua have remained steadfast in the face of DeSantis’ threats. After the governor first said he would start docking pay over local mask mandates, Broward County School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood responded, “I guess I’ll go to my community to set up a GoFundMe or work at McDonald’s. At least I’ll be able to have a moral conscience and know I didn’t put someone’s life at risk.”
Alachua County Public School superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon told NPR last week that the school board had acted unanimously to require masking because the science was undeniable.
“We have the University of Florida anchored pretty much right in the center of our county,” Simon said, explaining that the board had access to medical school experts from multiple disciplines. “We had a large presentation with multiple perspectives addressing what this impact of the delta variant would have on our community. And honestly, you couldn’t sit and listen to these experts discuss the complexities in where we were—really, we’re just at the beginning of the surge.”
Simon also said she had been contacted by people “around the world” offering to help if DeSantis cuts funding in any way.
“There have been multiple people reaching out, wanting to start GoFundMe pages,” Simon explained, adding that some people were already fundraising just in case the situation escalated. “I believe that there’s a lot of people who are watching, and they’re concerned, and they don’t want people to let go of their principles because they’re worried about money.”
Of course, the White House has also said it would work with local school officials to find ways to assist them.
But DeSantis and his cadre have now escalated, though some of the details remain unclear. One way or the other, DeSantis is determined to lock in that 22% of pro-punitive Americans—because wooing 1/3 of voters is for losers. That supposed “big” GOP tent just keeps on shrinking.