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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said on Thursday that it was reimbursing a Florida school district that lost state money for imposing a mask mandate, in opposition to a ban on such orders from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the pro-Trump Republican.
The award to Alachua County Public Schools of $147,719 is the first in the nation. It effectively compensates for the money lost in early September. Broward County, in South Florida, also saw state funds taken away because it ordered masking in schools.
The loss in Alachua County amounted to $13,400 a month.
Imposed in late July, the DeSantis ban led to a war of words between the strident governor and the White House, as well as an accompanying, ongoing court fight.
Alachua is the first district in the country to receive a reimbursement for following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as the advice of most public health officials.
“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” U.S. Education Secretary Michael Cardona said in a statement.
Cardona is in the midst of a bus tour to promote the safe resumption of in-person instruction, which was halted for much of last year in many large cities, as well as in states controlled by Democrats, who tended to be more cautious about in-person schooling than Republicans like DeSantis.
The Biden administration has insisted that regular school classes resume, but that students wear masks indoors, even if they are vaccinated.
Some Republican governors, led by DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, have prevented school districts from following CDC guidance on school masking, which has resulted in thousands of students having to quarantine in those and other states
The funds to Alachua County came from Project SAFE, a federal education department fund created in September “to provide additional funding to school districts that have funds withheld by their state or are otherwise financially penalized for implementing strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Kelly Leon, a spokesperson for the education department, said that Cardona aimed “to make awards as expeditiously as possible.”
Alachua County educators imposed a mask mandate in August, as Florida was experiencing a coronavirus surge as a result of the highly contagious Delta variant. The superintendent, Carlee Simon, described in a Washington Post op-ed how she had been called “a monster, child-abuser, communist, fascist, idiot and other names not fit to print” for mandating masks in schools.
The state education department, led by Richard Corcoran, a DeSantis ally, announced that the school district would face penalties for doing so, as would Broward County schools. Despite that threat, educators in Alachua County voted to extend the mask mandate into September.
After the federal education department announced its award to Alachua County schools on Thursday, Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’s press secretary, told Yahoo News that it was misguided for the Biden administration to use taxpayer funds intended for education to reward elected board members who “don’t believe parents have a right to choose what’s best for their children.”
DeSantis’s mask mandate ban appears to be headed for the state’s Supreme Court. A likely contender for the 2024 presidential nomination, DeSantis has earned praise from conservative media outlets for taking on the federal government, even as his standing with Floridians takes a hit in local polls.
DeSantis has continued to fight pandemic-related rules. His new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a skeptic both about masking and about vaccination requirements, has issued a new rule that allows parents to determine if their children need to quarantine or not after having been exposed to the coronavirus.
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