Claiming mask mandates are harassment, Florida OKs private school vouchers

Board of Education approves emergency rule expanding Hope Scholarships

Board of Education approves emergency rule expanding Hope Scholarships

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida’s Board of Education approved an emergency rule on Friday that will make private school vouchers available to parents who say a public school district’s mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children.

The move to take private tuition costs from public school funding created yet another flashpoint in the fight between local school boards and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over coronavirus safety measures in schools. DeSantis has long supported efforts to expand school privatization and says parents should be able to decide how to provide for their children’s health and education.

DeSantis had ordered the state education department to come up with ways to pressure school districts to not create mask mandates and punish them if they do. He said the rules could include withholding money from school districts or other actions allowed under Florida law.

The board then invoked an existing law meant to protect children against bullying, adding “COVID-19 harassment” as a prohibited form of discrimination. It defined this as “any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct’' students suffer as a result of COVID-19 protocols such as mask or testing requirements and isolation measures that “have the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance.”

“We’re not going to hurt kids. We’re not going to pull money that’s going to hurt kids in any way,” said board member Ben Gibson. “If a parent wants their child to wear a mask at school, they should have that right. If a parent doesn’t want their child to wear a mask at school, they should have that right.”

Gibson said the rule the board approved has the effect of law and that if school districts don’t comply, the board could hold up the transfer of state money.

The rule goes into effect immediately.

“Are you kidding me? So last year it was fine, but now with rising community spread, hospitals nearing capacity and the delta variant targeting the younger and unvaccinated people, it’s suddenly harassment? Florida, we have a problem,” tweeted Dr. Sunil Joshi, president of the Duval County Medical Society Foundation.

Florida now leads the nation in COVID-19 related hospitalizations, rising from 12,516 on Thursday to 12,864, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Hospital data shows 2,680 of those patients required intensive care, using about 42% of the ICU beds in the state, compared to less than 20% they were using two weeks ago.

The CDC said the number of new cases being reported by the state have raised Florida’s 7-day average to an all-time high of 18,120.

So far, only Alachua County has specifically decided to follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they restart classes next week, citing Florida’s dramatic rise in coronavirus infections.

The Duval County School Board avoided using the words “mandate” or “requirement” when it approved a change to its student code of conduct this work, saying that “any student not wearing a mask pursuant to this policy must, through his/her/their parent or guardian, complete the opt-out process.”

Broward County voted to require students to wear masks before DeSantis signed an executive order preventing such rules, then hesitated. As of Thursday, its outgoing superintendent said facemasks are needed to have a safe educational environment. The county’s School Board has two meetings set for Tuesday to discuss its mandate.

The Miami-Dade school district is also set to meet again before school begins to decide if masks will be optional or required.

At a news conference Friday, DeSantis reiterated his general opposition to restrictions, such as lockdowns, business closures and mask mandates.

“In terms of imposing any restrictions, that’s not happening in Florida. It’s harmful, it’s destructive. It does not work,’’ he said, noting that Los Angeles County had a winter surge despite all its restrictions. “We really believe that individuals know how to best assess their risks. We trust them to be able to make those decisions. We just want to make sure everybody has information.”

DeSantis has repeatedly claimed there was little difference in COVID-19 cases between schools with and without mask mandates, but at least one study of Florida school districts last year fall challenges that claim.

A CDC review of data from the Florida Department of Health and other state sources found schools without mask mandates had 42% more cases per 100,000 students.

“The preponderant literature clearly states masking is safe and saves lives,” said Dr. Paul Robinson, former president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer Hope Scholarship vouchers, said Thursday that it was not involved in the proposed rule allowing masks as qualifying criteria.

For years, Republicans have pushed to expand the school’s voucher programs, which also include vouchers for low-income families and students with disabilities. The board said it was appropriate to expand the vouchers to protect children from bullying to include COVID-19 protocols. Voucher opponents say money is diverted from public to private schools once the child leaves.

The Hope Scholarship was established in 2018 and was championed by then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican who now serves as education commissioner. It has been under-utilized since its launch, serving 388 students during the 2019-2020 school year, according to a Florida House analysis published in February.

Heading into the 2021 legislative session, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, floated a similar idea of creating a voucher program specifically aimed at letting parents escape school mask mandates. But Gruters, who is also chairman of the state Republican Party, ultimately did not file a bill that would’ve created the “Face Freedom Scholarship.”

Democrats have bashed DeSantis’ efforts to prevent school districts from requiring masks as the state grapples with a spike in COVID-19 cases caused by the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus. State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, criticized the voucher proposal Thursday.

“The distance this state will go to not only defund public education but to fulfill a politically motivated agenda about masks. If they moved this fast on homelessness imagine where we would be right now,” Eskamani said in a tweet.

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Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.