TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — "The funding stream is now open," federal officials said Friday as they continued their effort to reimburse Florida schools penalized for not complying with the governor's mask mandate ban.
The ban was put in place earlier this year and requires schools to offer parents an opt-out on masking their students.
"The message is really clear from the president," said White House Senior Policy Advisor for Education Mary Wall. "It's that he supports educators and leaders at the state and local level, who are doing right by kids."
That grant money is available to any school district facing state penalties for following CDC guidance, which recommends masking for everyone inside schools.
In Florida, the dollars will backfill monthly wage garnishments for defiant school board members. At least nine other districts in the state remain in violation and can apply for the same aid.
Wall said federal officials stand ready to help.
Strong leaders deserve support. Today, we awarded the first Project SAFE grant to @AlachuaSchools to cover financial penalties imposed on them for using policies that keep students safe. I spoke with @DrCarleeSimon to let her know: we have her back. pic.twitter.com/CpkJKq2xER— Secretary Miguel Cardona (@SecCardona) September 23, 2021
"We can't play politics with this," she said. "This is about students' lives and students' safety."
Gov. Ron DeSantis has continued to push back, saying masking should be up to parents -- not districts.
Press Secretary Christina Pushaw said in a statement "no one is above the law, including the Alachua County Superintendent."
"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," Pushaw said. "Therefore, it's ironic that the federal government is now using taxpayer funding for education to pay the salaries of elected school board members, who made the decision to violate the law because they don't believe parents have a right to choose what's best for their children."
Meanwhile, Republican colleagues in the Legislature are also vowing new penalties for defiant districts in the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.
State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee for public schools, said recently the idea wasn't a threat but a statement.
"How do we fund rogue governments that say we don't have to follow the law?" said Fine. "I absolutely think there will be consequences for their continued breaking of the law. They’re doing it right now."
Fine didn't offer specifics on the idea but said there were ways to levy penalties without impacting learning.
All of this also comes as legal challenges to the governor's mask mandate ban continue in court. One, brought by districts, was dismissed earlier this week. Another from pro-mask parents had initial success on the circuit level and is now in the middle of an appeal in district court by the state.