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U.S. Dept. of Education announces grant for schools penalized by states for mask, COVID policies

Project SAFE grants may also have an impact in states like South Carolina. But state officials say no funds have been withheld from schools at this point.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Schools facing state-imposed financial penalties for implementing COVID mask mandates and other policies may soon receive additional money from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education announced on Thursday that it will launch a new grant program known as Project SAFE (Supporting America's Families and Educators) to which school districts can apply.

Specifically, the new funding option is for 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."

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

While the announcement doesn't name specific states, the decision comes amid a tense battle over masking in South Carolina and other states.

The South Carolina legislature even passed a restriction, known as Proviso 1.108, which says schools cannot use funding from this year’s state budget to mandate masks. What followed were school districts working to find loopholes in the wording to mandate masks without violating it - and eventually hearings before the S.C. Supreme Court.

However, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Education said that the grants wouldn't apply to schools in this state - at least for now - since no funds have actually been withheld.

"No South Carolina school or district has had any funds withheld or has been otherwise financially penalized for implementing strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance," the statement said. "According to the U.S. Department of Education’s press release, the Project SAFE grant funding is designed to restore funding withheld by state leaders when a school district implemented strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Since no funding has been withheld in South Carolina for this reason, this grant program currently has no impact on schools and districts in our state."

According to the Department of Education announcement, the new grant program is part of President Joe Biden's aim to "combat COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of students, educators, families, and school communities."

Funds are specifically being made available to restore funding withheld by state leaders. One example provided is a case of "school board members or superintendents who have had their pay cut" upon the implementation of strategies to stop COVID.

The Department of Education intends to put out an invitation for applications in the coming days but didn't provide a specific date. However, the department said it plans to make grant awards "as expeditiously as possible" and on an ongoing basis. The grant money will also be awarded directly to local education agencies.

In the announcement, the agency said the Biden administration continues to urge states to adopt vaccine mandates for all school employees and encourage schools to use American Rescue Plan funds to regularly test students and school staff.

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