Today, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the School Board of Alachua County $147,719 in funding under the new Project to Support America’s Families and Educators (Project SAFE) grant program. 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Project SAFE program was announced as part of President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan to combat COVID-19 and safely reopen schools for in-person learning. As part of the program, school districts have been able to apply to the Department of Education to restore funding withheld by state leaders—such as salaries for school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut—when a school district implemented strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
“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,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “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.”
The Project SAFE program promotes student safety and well-being by providing funding to school districts that were financially penalized by an entity in their state for implementing the CDC’s science-based strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The funding will help districts keep these measures in place and maintain district and school stability despite the financial penalty. Prior to the creation of the Project SAFE program, President Biden announced that if a state cuts the funding to a local school district for implementing CDC-recommended prevention strategies like universal masking, the school district may use funds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to fill those gaps. School districts can begin spending their ARP funds right away, including to reimburse for any allowable cost dating back to when the national emergency for COVID-19 was declared.
Beyond the resources in the American Rescue Plan, the Project SAFE program makes additional funding available to help local school districts fill gaps when funding has been withheld by their state for implementing COVID safety measures. ProjectSAFE is funded under the School Safety National Activities authority in Section 4631(a)(1)(B) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Today’s announcement marks the first Project SAFE grant award since the program was launched.
CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status, and that children should return to full-time, in-person learning with layered prevention strategies in place to reduce potential for transmission at school. Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) first adopted a policy that required students and district employees to wear masks on school grounds in October 2020. Consistent with CDC guidance, on Aug. 3, 2021, the ACPS School Board voted to require students and staff to wear masks during the first two weeks of school, then voted to extend this policy on Aug. 17, 2021. Shortly after the extension, the Florida State Board of Education informed ACPS that it would be subject to financial penalties due to these policies. With the Project SAFE grant funds, Alachua County Public Schools will be able to stabilize district staffing and compensation levels necessary to keep CDC recommended strategies in place and to promote student safety for its nearly 30,000 students.
“Students deserve the opportunity to return to school in-person safely this fall, and our nation’s superintendents must have not only the authority to make the decisions about what that reopening looks like, but also freedom from unnecessarily political and punitive retaliation from their state leaders,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “Superintendents bear the ultimate responsibility and accountability for those decisions, and AASA will always support the leadership decisions of superintendents on behalf of their districts, students, and staff. We applaud Project SAFE in its work to support school districts where leaders are making the best decisions for their students, staff, and community despite objectionable state obstacles.”
Educators, leaders, and parents are working hand-in-hand in communities across the nation to keep students and school communities safe—and the Biden Administration will do everything it can to support them doing right by children. The Biden Administration remains committed to supporting educators as they work to return to in-person learning safely, and the President’s plan makes clear we will take on those working to block or undermine these efforts. Other school districts that have had a financial penalty imposed by their state for implementing CDC-recommended strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 can learn more about Project SAFE and apply for funds from the program at https://oese.ed.gov/offices/office-of-formula-grants/safe-supportive-schools/the-project-to-support-americas-families-and-educators-project-safe/.