School board members in Alachua County, who saw their salaries cut due to mandating masks in their schools against Governor DeSantis’ Executive Order 21-175, were repaid Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE).

Funding for the payment comes from a new program established by the Biden administration known as the Project to Support America’s Families and Educators grant program, or “Project SAFE.”

Project SAFE can be described as “new” because it was announced on September 9th and is in direct response to states like Florida who have established policies that restrict its school districts from following CDC guidelines. While other states have issued similar policies to Florida, the back and forth between Governor DeSantis and President Biden has been the most evident.

While not directly calling out Governor DeSantis, the press release regarding the September 9th announcement states the Project SAFE will, “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 consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, such as universal indoor masking.”

Even though the Project SAFE press release does not mention Florida, it is safe to say that the USDOE had it in mind, given the fact that Thursday’s payment to Alachua County board members was the first installment of Project SAFE across the country.

“This is the first award under Project SAFE, and funding will support the Florida school district’s efforts to protect students as they return to safe, in-person learning despite the state’s actions to prohibit implementation of strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19, consistent with science-based guidance from the [CDC],” according to Thursday’s press release by the U.S. Department of Education.”

The amount of money awarded to the Alachua County school board was $147,719.

“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them. We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities, and with today’s first-ever award under Project SAFE, we are further enabling educators to continue that critical work,” U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cordona, said in statement.

He added, “With these grants, we’re making sure schools and communities across the country that are committed to safely returning to in-person learning know that we have their backs. I commend Alachua for protecting its students and educators, and I look forward to working with them to provide students their best year yet. 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.”

Alachua County is just one of two Florida counties that have been sanctioned by the state, the other being Broward County. There are nine other county school boards in Florida that have placed mask mandates in their schools, but they have yet to be fined.

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Casey Owens is a contributing writer for The Florida Capital Star. Follow him on Twitter at @cowensreports. Email tips to [email protected].