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Biden Dangles New Federal Funds For Schools That Defy Mask Mandate Bans

Parents drop their children off for the first day of school in Novi, Mich., on Tuesday.
Emily Elconin
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Parents drop their children off for the first day of school in Novi, Mich., on Tuesday.

On Thursday, President Biden announced a series of actions aimed at getting control of the surging pandemic. Alongside new vaccine requirements for private businesses, he announced new steps to encourage K-12 schools to mandate masks for all, require vaccines for employees and step up testing for COVID-19.

Coronavirus safety measures like these have become political flashpoints, and nowhere more than in schools. There have been violent confrontations at school board meetings over mask requirements, and states including Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah have all tried to stop districts from requiring masks. This comes as the highly contagious delta variant is causing a rise in cases among young people, and those under 12 are still not eligible for vaccines.

The United States has a long tradition of local control and funding of its 13,000-odd school districts. The federal government has limited oversight powers, and provides around 8 % of total funds spent on public schools. However, the president seems to be leaning heavily on both the carrots and sticks he does have. The actions announced on Thursday include:

  • Some districts are opposing their states to strengthen COVID-19 safety measures. Alachua and Broward counties in Florida, for example, recently defied the governor to require masks in schools. Now, President Biden promises to fill in any gaps in funding that result. This goes above and beyond the $122 billion set aside for school reopenings in the American Rescue Plan. According to the White House, "Local school districts will be able to apply to the Department of Education in the coming weeks to restore funding withheld by state leaders ... when a school district implemented strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools." The Department of Education announced that the new grant program will be called Project SAFE (Supporting America's Families and Educators), and it will be funded under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act. 
  • Teachers and staff directly employed or funded by the federal government — including those at U.S. Department of Defense schools, Bureau of Indian Education-operated schools and Head Start and Early Head Start preschool programs for children in poverty — are now subject to a vaccine requirement. This requirement covers nearly 300,000 school staff serving more than 1 million children. 
  • Biden's plan also highlights his intention to use the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights to go after states that, in the federal government's view, discriminate against students with disabilities by banning mask mandates. There are already investigations open in five states. 
  • In addition, Biden's plan calls on states to require vaccines for all school employees. There was no reward or sanction explicitly attached to this effort. For now, the president is simply "asking" states to follow the example of places like California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

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    Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.