Biden seeks to support Florida schools threatened by governor over masks

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Students return on the first day of school amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at West Tampa Elementary School in Tampa, Florida, U.S., August 10, 2021. REUTERS/Octavio Jones

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WASHINGTON, Aug 10 (Reuters) - The Biden administration is reviewing how it can get money to Florida school districts if the state's governor, Ron DeSantis, makes good on threats to withhold pay from school leaders who require masks for students.

Most of Florida's schools reopen this week at full capacity. DeSantis, a Republican, has warned the state could level financial penalties to districts that mandate masks, the latest in a series of actions aimed at brandishing his laissez-faire credentials.

Many school officials and public health experts say masks are needed to protect students and teachers, and President Joe Biden has clashed with DeSantis over the issue.

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Asked on Tuesday whether he could intervene in states that have banned mask mandates, Biden said he did not think so but his administration was studying the possibility.

"I don't believe that I do," Biden said when asked if he had the power to intervene. "We're checking that."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the administration is looking at whether it can use unspent COVID-19 relief funds to combat any pay cuts imposed by DeSantis.

"We're continuing to look into what our options are to help protect and help support these teachers and administrators who are taking steps to protect the people in their communities," Psaki said.

DeSantis's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Republican rising star is closely tied to former President Donald Trump and has become a national figure for opposing pandemic restrictions, even as Florida has become a hotbed of infections and hospitalizations have hit record levels. read more

He is widely seen as weighing a potential 2024 challenge for the presidency. read more

Last week, Biden asked Republican governors like DeSantis to "get out of the way" of efforts to contain the virus. The willingness to call out Republicans marked a shift in tone from Biden, who has tried to take politics out of the vaccination drive.

At the time, DeSantis fired back at Biden, saying he did not want to "hear a blip about COVID from you, thank you," adding, "Why don’t you do your job?"

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Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Andrea Shalal and Jeff Mason; Editing by Trevor Hunnicutt and David Gregorio

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