TALLAHASSEE – The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday reimbursed several Florida school board members who saw their salaries cut by the DeSantis administration for forcing students to wear masks this fall.
In total, the Biden administration sent school officials in Alachua County $ 147,719 to compensate for fines from the Florida Department of Education, marking the first awards given by the federal government in the fight against Republican-ruled states and their Covid-19 policies. Alachua is one of 11 school districts in Florida to impose masks on students in defiance of Governor Ron DeSantis, who wants parents to have the final say on face coverings in schools.
“We should thank the districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, without punishing them,” US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.
Since the summer, the Biden administration has clashed with DeSantis over the GOP governor’s resistance to Covid-related restrictions amid the surge in new infections. While the fight to hide children has received the most media coverage, the DeSantis have also publicly rejected White House pressure to demand that big companies vaccinate their workers.
And more recently, DeSantis has spoken out against Biden’s plan to redistribute monoclonal antibody treatments from Florida and other southern states to areas that also need them. DeSantis has spent weeks traveling to Florida to advertise antibody therapies, essentially making treatments the centerpiece of the state’s fight against Covid.
Federal funding the White House uses to reimburse Florida school officials comes from the Support America’s Families and Educators grant program, or Project SAFE developed by the US Department of Education in response to some Republican states blocking Covid-safe precautions. 19 such as masking requirements for students.
Alachua and Broward counties are so far the only Florida school boards to be sanctioned by the Florida Department, even though nearly a dozen districts have defied the DeSantis administration by demanding masks.
Carlee Simon, principal of the Alachua school, said she was “grateful” to Biden and the federal government for coming to the aid of board members who were punished by the DeSantis administration .
“But I am even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement in our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning,” Simon said in a statement.
By paying school board members sanctioned by Florida officials, the federal government undermined what was the only way to discipline non-compliant districts.
The SAFE grants are meant to be a signal to districts that the federal government is “relying” on security measures from Covid-19, Cardona said.
DeSantis mask policies are contained in a Florida Department of Health rule that states that any local school mask warrant must give parents the option to opt out. The rule has survived numerous court challenges, including one that was dismissed on Wednesday when state officials created a new policy that replaced and slightly changed the rule.
The US Department of Education’s civil rights office is also investigating the rule on grounds that it may violate the rights of students with disabilities.