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Education Department Reimburses Florida School Officials Penalized for Defying Mask-Mandate Ban

A student wearing a protective mask attends class on the first day of school amid the coronavirus pandemic at St. Lawrence Catholic School in North Miami Beach, Fla. August 18, 2021. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

The U.S. Department of Education has reimbursed several Florida school-board members who were financially penalized by the state government for defying the mask-mandate ban spearheaded by Republican governor Ron DeSantis.

School officials in Alachua County received $147,719 as compensation for the fines imposed by the Florida Department of Education, in a first instance of the Biden administration fulfilling its promise to help school districts counter DeSantis’s executive order with federal funds. Rather than prohibit masks, the governor’s directive leaves the decision to send children to school with masks at the discretion of parents, making the practice optional.

In addition to Alachua, ten other Florida school districts have required that students wear masks on campus, which the DeSantis administration has argued violates state law, therefore potentially warranting punishment.

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw slammed the U.S. Department of Education’s intervention Thursday.

“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. 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,” Pushaw told The News Service of Florida.

“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.

In August, the Biden administration sent a letter to DeSantis suggesting that any school officials penalized over the state’s ban of mask mandates could be repaid with funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan.

“Any threat by Florida to withhold salaries from superintendents and school board members who are working to protect students and educators (or to levy other financial penalties) can be addressed using ESSER funds at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts,” it read.

The Biden administration appears to have followed through on its pledge. Alachua’s reimbursement was derived from the Support America’s Families and Educators, or Project SAFE grant program, kickstarted by the Education Department in the wake of Republican states’ resisting federal demands for COVID restrictions in schools and other venues. Only Alachua and Broward counties have had funding for salaries withheld by the state government so far, even though several others have disobeyed the order.

The governor’s mask-mandate prohibition has been entangled in legal disputes for many months. In a recent development, the First District Court of Appeals in Florida ended a pause on the ban, allowing the measure to temporarily go back into effect, likely for the remainder of the semester until the appellate court issues a final ruling.

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