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U.S. begins reimbursing Florida school officials for pay docked for defying ban on mask mandates

Project SAFE grants totaling nearly $148,000 are being sent to Florida educators who lost pay after they defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban.
Image: A teacher greets students outside of iPrep Academy on the first day of school on Aug. 23, 2021, in Miami.
A teacher greets students outside iPrep Academy in Miami on Aug. 23, the first day of school.Lynne Sladky / AP

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration Thursday began compensating some Florida school board members whose pay was docked this month for defying Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates, the Education Department said.

As part of the Biden administration's Project SAFE grant program, an initial sum of $148,000 has been awarded to Alachua County school board members who voted this summer to mandate masks in the county's schools as Florida developed some of the worst rates of Covid infection in the country.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement that the first wave of reimbursements sends a clear message to school board members nationwide: You will not be punished for overriding GOP governors and legislatures to make schools safer for children.

"We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe," Cardona said in his statement, adding that his agency was making sure schools and communities across the country "know that we have their backs."

The Education Department also published a notice inviting more districts to apply for Project SAFE grants.

In July, DeSantis signed an executive order saying the state would withhold funding from any district that required students to wear masks, and Broward County also voted to defy the order. A state judge upheld the county's mask mandate a few weeks ago as Florida was setting records for Covid cases affecting children and teens at a higher rate than for any other age group.

The state Education Department decided to press forward with withholding the salaries.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said, "Students deserve the opportunity to return to school in person safely this fall, and our nation's superintendents must have not only the authority to make the decisions about what that reopening looks like, but also freedom from unnecessarily political and punitive retaliation from their state leaders,"

Christina Pushaw, DeSantis' press secretary, said the federal effort shows that "they don't believe parents have a right to choose what's best for their children."

Pushaw added: "Just a couple of months ago, the Biden administration said that Florida would be violating federal requirements by providing $1,000 bonuses to teachers and principals. Therefore, it's ironic that the federal government is now using taxpayer funding for education to pay the salaries of elected school board members."

Cardona has also warned states that ban mask mandates that the billions of dollars in federal Covid relief funds they have received depend on a "safe" return to school. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is also investigating Texas to determine whether its ban on mask mandates violates the rights of students with disabilities who are more likely to suffer severe cases of Covid.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff members and students. At least eight states have banned mask mandates, including Oklahoma, Arkansas and South Carolina.