Alachua County Public Schools became the first school district in the nation Thursday to receive federal funds to cover money the state withheld over school mask requirements.
The U.S. Department of Education provided the north central Florida school district with an initial grant of $147,719 through Project SAFE (Support America’s Families and Educators), a federal program formed this month under President Joe Biden.
Project SAFE financially aids schools penalized by state entities for employing COVID-19 safety measures consistent with science-based guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a Sept. 23 press note, the Education Department confirmed Alachua was the first district to receive a grant through the program.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona commended Alachua “for protecting its students and educators” and denounced state anti-mask-mandate policies like the one in Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” Cardona said in a written statement. “Every student across the country deserves the opportunity to return to school in person safely this fall, and every family should be confident that their school is implementing policies that keep their children safe.”
In response to the DeSantis administration’s threat to deny funding to school districts that violate a state rule allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates — a threat the state has since followed through on — the Biden administration told Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran last month it would compensate districts with whatever was withheld.
To date, the Florida Department of Education has withheld two months’ worth of salaries, about $27,000, for the four Alachua School Board members who voted to defy DeSantis and impose mask mandates without parental opt-outs — Chair Dr. Leanetta McNealy, Vice Chair Tim Certain and members Rob Hyatt and Dr. Gunnar Paulson.
“We continue to do the work we believe is important in making sure we provide safe environments for students and staff, and the support of our President is incredibly beneficial,” Alachua Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon told Florida Politics. “And we know we have work to do. We have students to educate, and we need to focus on our job responsibilities. I feel strongly that other (school districts) feel the same way. They’re doing everything they can and understand the consequences of their decisions, but they still very much believe this is the safe way to go and what they need to do to e responsible education leaders.”
Simon said she expects continued support from the Biden administration over the next several months, including after this initial apportionment of federal funding runs out.
“If the Governor or commissioner of education have additional tactics they would like to use, I believe strongly that the President and secretary of education are watching,” she said. “They’re focused on making sure they can provide the support we need.”
On Wednesday, the Governor and new State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo announced a new Florida Department of Health rule giving parents the power to decide whether to take their children out of school after a COVID-19 exposure if they are asymptomatic.
DeSantis’ office hasn’t yet released an official response to the Alachua grant.
Other states to impose mask mandate bans include Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.