School districts that defy their states’ orders by implementing mask requirements and other COVID-19 restrictions are expected to receive new financial support from the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday announced that it will start a new grant program called Project SAFE (Supporting America’s Families and Educators). In the coming weeks, eligible school districts will be invited to apply for the grants, which will be distributed “as expeditiously as possible and on an ongoing basis.”
The grant will be open for application by school districts that “have funds withheld by their state or are otherwise financially penalized for implementing strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, such as universal indoor masking,” according to the Department.
School districts are expected to used the Project SAFE money to “restore funding withheld by state leaders,” the Department said. One example provided is a case of “school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut” after they implemented “strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”
“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,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a press release. “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them.”
While the Department didn’t mention any specific state or school district, the announcement came amid an ongoing fight between school districts that require students to wear masks and state governments that have enacted laws or issued orders prohibiting such practices.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that directs state officials to ensure that parents have the final say on whether their children wear a mask at school. At least a dozen school districts are resisting that order and keeping mask requirements in place. On Aug. 30, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said his department has withheld funds from the Alachua and Broward county school districts in amounts equal to to the salaries of four Alachua and eight Broward school board members who voted for the mask mandates.
“The withholding of funds will continue monthly until each school board complies with state law and rule,” a press release from Corcoran’s office read.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has announced that school districts can tap into the state’s $163 million education grant only if they “follow all state laws and remain open for in-person learning.” This means that districts that require masks or move online will miss the opportunity to receive a payment up to $1,800 per student.
“Parents are in the driver’s seat, and it’s their right to make decisions that best fit the needs of their children,” Ducey said last month when announcing the decision. “Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged—mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t.”
Earlier this week, Montana’s health officials issued an emergency rule directing schools to allow parents to opt their children out of any mask mandates, making Montana the latest state to introduce such measures. Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Utah also have similar policies.