New federal grants will cover state fines over school masks, Biden says

Florida has withheld money from two districts, and threatened eight others.
President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, shown during a July briefing in Miami, have taken opposing stances on school mask mandates.
President Joe Biden and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, shown during a July briefing in Miami, have taken opposing stances on school mask mandates. [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published Sept. 9, 2021|Updated Sept. 9, 2021

President Joe Biden’s administration jumped back into Florida’s school mask battle on Thursday, making good on a pledge to back school boards that implement strict mask mandates despite a state ban.

The U.S. Department of Education announced the creation of a new grant designed specifically to cover any fines or withholding of funds that school districts face because of their mask rules.

The action marks the latest move in a back and forth tussle between the Biden administration and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration over masks. Biden had called some Florida superintendents in August, encouraging them to keep fighting DeSantis’ rules requiring parental choice on masks, and also threatened legal action against governors who stand in the way of local schools “protecting our children.”

On Thursday, Biden went further, calling on governors to require vaccinations for all students and staff, and referring to DeSantis in a speech to the nation.

“Right now, local school officials are trying to keep children safe in a pandemic while their governor picks a fight with them and even threatens their salaries or their jobs,” Biden said. “Talk about bullying in schools.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said nearly a month ago the federal government might provide financial backing to the small but growing number of Florida school boards that were adopting strict mask requirements to combat rising numbers of coronavirus cases. His latest announcement came two weeks after the Florida Department of Education held back amounts equal to school board member salaries in Broward and Alachua counties, which refused to reverse course on masks.

The state education department also has threatened to do the same to eight other school districts, including Hillsborough and Miami-Dade, that have mask mandates without a parental opt-out provision.

“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” Cardona said Thursday in a press statement. “We stand with the dedicated educators doing the right thing to protect their school communities, and this program will allow them to continue that critical work of keeping students safe.”

Jackie Johnson, a spokesperson for the Alachua County school district, said her district appreciated the federal government’s action. She expected the school system will apply for the grant as soon as those details become available.

“Not having to go through the state to request federal dollars to make up this difference will be very helpful,” Johnson said. “We were a little bit concerned about this issue.”

Broward County school district officials have raised questions about the state’s readiness to distribute federal coronavirus relief funds, as well. On Wednesday, the School Board and superintendent issued a letter requesting that the state release all available stimulus funding as soon as possible.

Jared Ochs, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, called Broward’s letter “political grandstanding” aimed at “scoring political points and being noticed by their party leaders in D.C.” He noted that Broward had received $62 million in federal stimulus funds so far, and had yet to use more than $9 million of it.

The district also received another $10.3 million in Non-Enrollment Assistance federal funds, Ochs said.

“As you can see, it is clear the FDOE has been working with Broward County for some time now and in good faith,” Ochs wrote in an email.

For the new grant program, the federal government is taking steps to ensure that districts will not have to go through the state agency to secure its funding. The Department of Education plans to release a notice inviting applications to school districts the coming weeks, and expects to make awards “as expeditiously as possible and on an ongoing basis.”

Times/Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

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