Biden administration begins reimbursing Fla. school officials penalized over mask mandates

Biden administration begins reimbursing Fla. school officials penalized over mask mandates
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The Biden administration on Thursday began to reimburse Florida school board members who were financially penalized for requiring masks in districts against Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Democrats inch closer to legislative deal Democrats face growing hurdles in bid to oust DeSantis DeSantis eyes ,000 bonus for unvaccinated police to relocate to Florida MORE’s (R) executive order.

The Department of Education announced in a release that it gave almost $148,000 in funding to the School Board of Alachua County as part of its Project to Support America’s Families and Educators grant program. 

Alachua County Public Schools board is the first to receive the grant funding from the program designed to compensate school districts that have their money withheld by the state for instituting an indoor mask mandate. 

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Education Secretary Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaPresident, first lady honor teachers at White House awards ceremony Ilhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' Florida Board of Education approves sanctions on eight school districts over coronavirus mandates MORE said in a statement that he commended the Alachua County educators for taking steps to protect students, despite the consequences.

“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” he said. “We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities.”

In a release, Alachua Public Schools said Cardona informed its Superintendent Carlee Simon of the funding in a call Thursday.

“I’m very grateful to Mr. Cardona, President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act:  a bill long overdue MORE and the federal government for the funding,” Simon said. “But I’m even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement of our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”

So far, the state has withheld two months worth of salaries for the four school board members who voted to support the mask requirement, the district said, amounting to almost $27,000.

Over the summer, DeSantis, who is considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools with financial repercussions for violations.

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The dispute over the order has evolved into an ongoing court battle, with a state judge upholding school mask mandates before an appeals court reinstated the governor’s order earlier this month.  

The Florida Department of Education told the Alachua County Public Schools that the state planned to withhold money from the district after the school board voted in mid-August to extend its mask requirement beyond the first two weeks of school. 

The Hill has reached out to the Florida Department of Education for comment.

School mask mandates align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations for all students, teachers and staff older than the age of 2 to wear a mask indoors to prevent COVID-19 spread, the Education Department noted. 

But at least eight states, including Florida and Texas, forbid schools from instituting mask requirements, according to Pew Research Center.

This week, the department released a notice welcoming more applications for the grants to support school leaders who decide to implement mask requirements and as a result, endure financial penalties. 

The Department of Education has also launched civil rights investigations into several statewide bans on mask requirements, saying they could be discriminatory toward students with disabilities.

Updated at 1:29 p.m.