As President Joe Biden applauded school officials willing to defy their governors’ punishments to keep kids safe from COVID-19, a new federal grant program announced Thursday seems tailor-made for 13 mask-mandating Florida school districts.
The U.S. Education Department Thursday announced Project SAFE (Supporting America’s Families and Educators) will direct funding to school districts that have had state money withheld or are being financially penalized for efforts to mitigate COVID-19.
Alachua County schools Superintendent Carlee Simon, leading one of the financially penalized school districts for its student mask mandate, hailed the action.
“I appreciate the U.S. Department of Education’s support of our efforts to limit the spread of COVID in our schools and community,” Simon said. “When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, (U.S. Education) Secretary Miguel Cardona told me that his department would back us up, and he’s been true to his word. We agree with Secretary Cardona that School Board members deserve praise for protecting their communities, not sanctions.”
Like Alachua County schools, the school district in Broward County is defying Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ executive order prohibiting mask mandates. And Broward County schools are also under an order reducing state aid in an amount equal to the salary of its school board members who voted for the mandatory masks.
Another eight counties have school districts currently under investigation for their mask mandates and have been threatened with the same sanctions. School districts in Brevard, Lee and Volusia counties just started requiring the masks in the last 10 days.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened entities that accept taxpayer funds and require masks with a $1,000 fine, but it’s not altogether clear how that would apply to school districts, according to the Texas Tribune. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has announced school districts that require masks or close because of COVID-19 outbreaks won’t be eligible for payments of $1,800 per student that would come out of a federally funded COVID-19 relief fund the state controls, according to the Associated Press.
The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights opened investigations exploring how children with disabilities are being discriminated against due to statewide prohibitions on indoor universal masking at schools. Those states are Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah, according to a Department of Education Office of Civil Rights news release.
In a speech Thursday, Biden didn’t mention any of the governors or states by name, but he did seem to address bans against universal mask mandates.
“School officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic while their Governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their jobs,” Biden said. “Talk about bullying in schools. If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my powers as President to get them out of the way.”
Christina Pushaw, spokeswoman for Gov. DeSantis, referred FloridaPolitics.com to DeSantis’ previous comments saying Florida would not become a biomedical security state and would stand firm in defense of parents’ rights. But Pushaw also added: “He’s not responding to Biden today.”
Simon said her district will be applying for the grant as soon as the invitation for applications is published.
“I’m particularly pleased that the grant awards will be made directly to school districts, because it means we will not have to rely on the state to serve as a go-between,” she said.