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The U.S. Department of Education is ratcheting up pressure on Florida to submit a plan for how it intends to use the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funding for schools. Florida is now the only state or U.S. territory that hasn’t submitted a plan for spending American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. 

Until the state Department of Education submits a plan, which was due June 7, the federal government will continue to withhold one-third of the state’s allocation. The federal agency said in a letter Monday to state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran that a third of the state’s allocation amounts to about $2.3 billion. 

“FDOE’s (the Florida Department of Education’s) delay raises significant concerns because of the unnecessary uncertainty it is creating for school districts across the state and because it is hindering their ability to confidently plan for how to use these funds to address the needs of students,” wrote Ian Rosenblum, a deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs at the federal agency. 

The federal government released the initial two-thirds of each state’s allocation in March. Under federal guidelines, the state education department is given control over 10% of the funding for Florida, with the remaining 90% intended to go directly to school districts. In his letter Monday, Rosenblum said Florida’s education department has drawn down $177 million in American Rescue Plan money earmarked for schools “for use at the state level.” However, Rosenblum said the federal government has “heard repeatedly from parents, teachers, and superintendents from school districts in Florida that FDOE has not yet awarded” disbursements from money already received under the American Rescue Plan. 

Meanwhile, parents of children with disabilities went to a federal appeals court Monday after a judge sided with Gov. Ron DeSantis and rejected a challenge to an executive order aimed at preventing Florida school districts from requiring students to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attorneys for the parents filed a notice that is an initial step in asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a Sept. 15 ruling by U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore. The notice does not detail arguments that the plaintiffs will make at the Atlanta-based appeals court.

But the lawsuit, filed in August, contends that DeSantis’ July 30 executive order violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws designed to protect the rights of students with disabilities, who are more susceptible to serious illness or death from COVID-19.

“Defendants have unlawfully discriminated against plaintiffs by refusing to allow local school districts the prerogative to allow masks and other common-sense precautions, as reasonable accommodations, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that are necessary for disabled children to enjoy the same school services as their classmates,” the plaintiffs argued in a district-court document filed Friday as a precursor to the notice of appeal.

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