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Dept. of Education offers funding for schools punished by states for mask mandates

School districts will be able to apply for the program to get funds back they had taken away for defying state bans on mask mandates.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Education launched a new grant program Thursday to help school districts that have been penalized by their respective states for implementing COVID-19 safety policies. 

Any schools that have had funds withheld because of its COVID measures, like a mask mandate, will be able to apply for a grant from project SAFE (short for "Supporting America’s Families and Educators") to get back any money it may have lost.

“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,”  U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a press release Thursday. “We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them."

Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis withheld money from two school districts for enacting mask mandates. But earlier this week, a judge struck down DeSantis' mask mandate ban. DeSantis is appealing that decision. Similarly in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has been fighting an uphill court battle with local districts to implement a similar ban on mask mandates.

Other states like Tennessee and Montana are requiring schools allow parents the option to opt their children out of mask mandates; Arizona's ban on mask mandates doesn't go into effect until the end of September; and other states like Iowa, Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina are all facing lawsuits for their bans on mask mandates in schools. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their recommendations in August to recommend universal masking in schools, as a precaution against the extremely contagious delta variant of the virus.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also announced a steep rise in the number of children diagnosed with COVID from August to September.

President Joe Biden highlighted the grant program as part of his remarks Thursday outlining new federal vaccine requirements. 

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 file photo, Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla.

Thursday's announcement of project SAFE is the culmination of a month's worth of effort, after Biden ordered the Education Department to take action against any state that threatens action against districts that enact coronavirus safety measures.

The program will start accepting grant applications in the coming weeks.

According to the Department of Education, Biden is also urging all states to adopt vaccine mandates for all school employees and encouraging schools to use federal funds to develop regular testing procedures for both students and school staff.