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Florida Dems Urge State To Release $7 Billion In Federal COVID Money To Schools

children wearing masks walking to class
In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 file photo, Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview.

Florida have received more than $7 billion through the American Rescue Plan. The state says it has the next three years to use that money.

Florida Democrats have jumped into the fight over school mask mandates. They've been urging school board members and superintendents to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis and mandate students wear face coverings indoors. But flying just under the mask fray is another issue: how the state should use federal money to help schools mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The federal government has sent billions of dollars to schools across the country amid the pandemic. Districts have used that money to shore up their buildings, install new HVAC units and, in the case of Leon County, hire more mental health counselors.

There are still billions more dollars left to spend. The state Department of Education is holding onto another pot of money as it decides who should get what and which programs should benefit from the funding. The more than $7 billion comes through the American Rescue Plan.

Eric Hall is with the Florida Department of Education. During a recent Florida Board of Education meeting, he said the state has until September 2024 to spend those dollars.

"It's not about just giving a lot of funding out and hoping that something happens. It's being intentional with these investments. It's working hand in hand with our district leaders and our school leaders," Hall said.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the federal government sent those dollars to the state to offset the impacts of COVID-19, and now more than ever, schools need that money.

"There's no legitimate reason for the withholding of these funds other than trying to bully their way into getting their way on policy issues," Farmer said.

Farmer pointed to DeSantis's effort to ban mandatory mask mandates in schools. Hall said the state is giving out surveys to get feedback on how the dollars should be spent. But Farmer doesn't think that's a reason to delay.

"Just divide them in an equitable way based on student populations and let the local officials who are best in position to understand the needs within that district to spend them wisely," Farmer said.

Farmer said districts should be able to use the dollars for repairing or upgrading infrastructure. He also said school officials should use the money to provide better remote learning options to students if in-person learning has to be canceled.

Districts across the state have reported thousands of students in quarantine or sick from COVID-19 since classes began this month. The rising number of children being infected by the delta variant is raising alarms with lawmakers like Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa.

"I received a text from my 16-year-old niece who's starting her first day of senior high school, that she was the only student in her class wearing a mask or one of only two students wearing a mask and that her teacher was not and that she felt afraid. No student should have to feel afraid as they're going back to school," Driskell said.

Driskell pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation that all children 2 and older and school staff wear masks.

"School boards across the state need to listen to the public health experts and not the politically motivated words of Gov. DeSantis," Driskell said.

The state Board of Education recently voted to pursue investigations into two Florida school districts defying DeSantis's ban on mandatory school mask policies. But that hasn't stopped more from following suit.

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