Biden picks up the tab for Florida school leaders fined by DeSantis

TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday repaid several Florida school board members who saw their salary slashed by the DeSantis administration for requiring students to wear masks this fall.

In total, the Biden administration sent school officials in Alachua County $147,719 to make up for fines from the Florida Department of Education, marking the first awards granted by the feds in the fight against Republican-led states and their Covid-19 policies. Alachua is one of 11 school districts in Florida to mandate masks for students in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants parents to have the ultimate say on face coverings in schools.

“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” U.S. 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 over masking children has been the most high profile, the DeSantis also publicly rejected the White House’s push to require large businesses to vaccinate their workers.

And most recently, DeSantis railed against Biden‘s plan to redistribute monoclonal antibody treatments from Florida and other southern states to areas that also need the treatments. DeSantis has spent weeks traveling around Florida heralding the antibody therapies, essentially making the treatments the centerpiece in the state’s Covid fight.

The federal funding the White House is using to repay Florida’s school officials comes from the Support America’s Families and Educators, or Project SAFE grant program cooked up by the U.S. Education Department in response to some Republican states blocking Covid-19 precautions like masking requirements for students.

Alachua and Broward counties are the only Florida school boards to be sanctioned by the Florida Department so far, even as nearly a dozen districts have defied the DeSantis administration by mandating masks.

Carlee Simon, Alachua’s school superintendent, said she was “grateful” to the Biden and the federal government for coming to the aid of board members who have been punished by the DeSantis administration.

“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,” Simon said in a statement.

By paying school board members sanctioned by Florida officials, the feds undercut what has been the only means of disciplining noncompliant districts.

The SAFE grants are meant to be a signal to districts that the feds “have their backs” on pushing for Covid-19 safety measures, Cardona said.

The DeSantis mask policies are entailed in a Florida Department of Health rule that stipulates any local school mask mandate must give parents the ability to opt out. The rule has survived numerous court challenges, including one that was thrown out Wednesday when state officials created a new policy that replaced and slightly tweaked the rule.

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office also is investigating the rule on the grounds that it could violate the rights of students with disabilities.

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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. | Brittainy Newman/AP Photo

TALLAHASSEE — The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday repaid several Florida school board members who saw their salary slashed by the DeSantis administration for requiring students to wear masks this fall.

In total, the Biden administration sent school officials in Alachua County $147,719 to make up for fines from the Florida Department of Education, marking the first awards granted by the feds in the fight against Republican-led states and their Covid-19 policies. Alachua is one of 11 school districts in Florida to mandate masks for students in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who wants parents to have the ultimate say on face coverings in schools.

“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” U.S. 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 over masking children has been the most high profile, the DeSantis also publicly rejected the White House’s push to require large businesses to vaccinate their workers.

And most recently, DeSantis railed against Biden‘s plan to redistribute monoclonal antibody treatments from Florida and other southern states to areas that also need the treatments. DeSantis has spent weeks traveling around Florida heralding the antibody therapies, essentially making the treatments the centerpiece in the state’s Covid fight.

The federal funding the White House is using to repay Florida’s school officials comes from the Support America’s Families and Educators, or Project SAFE grant program cooked up by the U.S. Education Department in response to some Republican states blocking Covid-19 precautions like masking requirements for students.

Alachua and Broward counties are the only Florida school boards to be sanctioned by the Florida Department so far, even as nearly a dozen districts have defied the DeSantis administration by mandating masks.

Carlee Simon, Alachua’s school superintendent, said she was “grateful” to the Biden and the federal government for coming to the aid of board members who have been punished by the DeSantis administration.

“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,” Simon said in a statement.

By paying school board members sanctioned by Florida officials, the feds undercut what has been the only means of disciplining noncompliant districts.

The SAFE grants are meant to be a signal to districts that the feds “have their backs” on pushing for Covid-19 safety measures, Cardona said.

The DeSantis mask policies are entailed in a Florida Department of Health rule that stipulates any local school mask mandate must give parents the ability to opt out. The rule has survived numerous court challenges, including one that was thrown out Wednesday when state officials created a new policy that replaced and slightly tweaked the rule.

The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office also is investigating the rule on the grounds that it could violate the rights of students with disabilities.

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