- The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday announced the launch of the Project SAFE (Supporting America’s Families and Educators) grant program, which will provide funding to districts penalized by states over COVID-19 prevention strategies as part of President Joe Biden's plan to address the ongoing pandemic.
- The program is expected to use Education Department funding provided by the Every Student Succeeds Act under Title IV, Part F, School Safety National Activities for applicable districts where funding has been withheld by state leaders, including pay cuts that have been levied against school board members and superintendents.
- The Education Department plans to issue a Notice Inviting Applications for the grants, which will be awarded "as expeditiously as possible" directly to school districts. Thursday's announcement also noted that Biden's newly announced COVID-19 measures include a call for state-level vaccine mandates for all school employees, the use of American Rescue Plan and other funds to provide regular testing for students and staff, and the use of the department's "full legal authority" to maintain access to in-person learning.
Biden says that for governors preventing school officials from implementing COVID precautions, "I'll use my power as president to get them out of the way."— CBS News (@CBSNews) September 9, 2021
He say federal government will restore "100%" of pay for school workers who are punished for "doing the right thing" pic.twitter.com/VxM3bvG8Mu
Project SAFE comes in the wake of threats to funding for districts in several states disobeying bans on school mask mandates.
"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 release. "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."
Last month, Cardona sent letters to Florida, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah expressing disapproval of state-level mask mandate bans amid the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 and rising child infections.
At the same time, he suggested public complaints about the lack of school masking could be investigated as a civil rights and discrimination issue. A White House memo also encouraged Cardona to look into "possible enforcement actions under applicable laws" for state leaders opposing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, with Biden writing that state officials should not be "standing in the way of local leaders" preparing for in-person instruction.
The Florida Department of Education announced last month that it would withhold monthly school board member salaries in Alachua and Broward County after the two districts implemented mandatory face mask policies in violation of an executive order requiring districts to allow parents to choose whether their children wore masks.
A Leon County Circuit judge ruled Wednesday for the state to halt enforcement of that mask mandate ban as Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration appeals an earlier decision ruling in favor of schools' rights to set their own masking policies, the Miami Herald reported.
In Texas' Dallas Independent School District, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa expressed concern in August that district leaders had been "hung out to dry" in these state battles. He decided to push forward with a policy on face coverings in his district despite the state's Supreme Court and Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to ban mask mandates. The Texas Education Agency ultimately announced it would not enforce the ban following federal intervention, according to The Daily News of Galveston County.