U.S. Department of Education approves grant funding for school districts facing state punishment for mask mandates

U.S. Department of Education approves grant funding for school districts facing state punishment for mask mandates

The Project SAFE grant would go to school districts and local education agencies that had funding withheld for enacting mask mandates. (courtesy Adobe Stock)

The United States Department of Education announced Sept. 9 that it would launch a grant program to send funds to school districts that have had their state funding withheld or faced other punishments from their states for implementing COVID-19 mitigation measures in line with Center for Disease Control guidance.

The grant program will be called Project SAFE and will be funded using money from the School Safety National Activities program of the Every Student Succeeds Act, according to the Department’s news release.

The department said local school districts would receive notices to apply for the grants and they would be made “as expeditiously as possible and on an ongoing basis.” Local education agencies will receive grant awards directly.

Kate Johanns, the marketing and communications director of the nonprofit Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the organization was “not aware” of any districts that have had funding withheld in Texas currently.

Should that happen in Texas, we would support federal relief to make up for the loss of funding,” Johanns said.

The Texas Education Agency updated its health guidance Aug. 19 to state that Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest order banning mask mandates by public entities would not be enforced due to “ongoing litigation.”

Abbott’s order, GA-38, went into effect July 29. On Aug. 19, the Texas Supreme Court in a separate case left in place a temporary restraining order on the GA-38 order that was initially issued by Travis County District Court Judge Jan Soifer, in response to a lawsuit from three Travis County parents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees voted Aug. 12 to enact its own mask mandate, which remains in effect following the Travis County restraining order.

Advocacy groups Disability Rights Texas filed a federal lawsuit against Abbott and TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on Aug. 17, alleging that the ban on mask mandates puts children with disabilities at greater risk and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In Tennessee, school districts can choose to implement mask policies; however, an executive order signed by Gov. Bill Lee on Aug. 16 allows parents to have their students opt out of local mandates.

In Arizona, the state Legislature passed with its budget a stipulation that schools could not mandate masks. Gov. Doug Ducey later issued an executive order establishing a grant program for schools and districts that remained open to in-person instruction and followed all state laws, including not mandating masks.

Additional reporting by Maggie Quinlan, Darcy Sprague, Wendy Sturges and Tom Blodgett.

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