TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s Board of Education decided Friday to provide private school vouchers 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 against creating 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.
But he 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.
“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.
So far, two Florida school districts have 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.
More than a dozen Florida parents filed a lawsuit Friday in Miami federal court against DeSantis, the state Department of Education and some of the largest school districts, alleging that the ban on mask mandates violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. They say their disabled children will be unable to attend public schools with unmasked classmates because they are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.
Florida 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.
Dan Smith, the president of the Seminole Education Association, called the emergency rule “vindictive” against school districts who aren’t complying with the governor’s executive order.
“Unfortunately, the governor is doing it as retaliation against districts who aren’t complying with him. I think what you’re seeing is the handful, the two or three districts at this point, that are putting mask mandates in for students, now the governor is coming in with the hope scholarship and saying, ‘You want to have this? You don’t want to wear a mask? Then take the scholarship, take your money, go to a private school where they don’t have masks,’” Smith said.
Wendy Doromal, the president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, said this jeopardizes the health of students, teachers, and the community.
“You know who’s being bullied? The citizens of this state are being bullied by a governor who refuses them safe and public schools. The teachers and employees of those schools are being bullied and the parents are being bullied to make a choice,” Doromal said.
The governor’s office said the Hope Scholarship can also be used by parents who are not happy if their local school district has an optional mask policy. In this case, families can use the voucher to send their child to a private school with a mask mandate.
Florida students could soon use state-backed vouchers to transfer to private schools if they object to wearing masks in classrooms, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials argue that decisions about masks should be left up to parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The State Board of Education is set to hold a conference call Friday, in part to consider an emergency rule that would expand the state’s Hope Scholarship voucher program to allow students who don’t want to wear masks to transfer to private schools. The Hope Scholarship program was originally intended to offer vouchers to students who have been the victims of such things as bullying.
The meeting is part of a rule-making process triggered by a DeSantis executive order designed to prevent school districts from requiring that students wear masks. DeSantis has argued that parents should have the right to decide whether their children wear masks.
A notice of the meeting posted in Thursday’s Florida Administrative Register said the board will weigh whether to change the Hope Scholarship program to provide parents “with a mechanism to transfer a child to a private school or another school district under a Hope Scholarship when a school district’s COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a health or educational danger to their child.”
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.
Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer Hope Scholarship vouchers, said Thursday that it was not involved in the proposed rule.
“This is a proposal from the Board of Education, not something Step Up For Students has proposed, but as always we will faithfully carry out state directives,” Scott Kent, the organization’s assistant director of strategic communications, told The News Service of Florida in an email.
DeSantis’ executive order, issued last week, threatened funding for school districts that impose mask mandates. But some districts are nevertheless moving ahead with efforts to require masks for students in some or all grade levels with the academic year set to begin next week.
During a press event last week in Cape Coral, DeSantis was asked if “harm” to students from mask-wearing would qualify them to receive vouchers through the Hope Scholarship program.
The governor said he would “have to look at that” and took the opportunity to again attack forced masking policies.
“One of the things that’s so frustrating about this whole experience is, some of the people that are advocating for mitigation measures and mandates and stuff, they never acknowledge the harms of what comes with that,” DeSantis said at the media event.
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.
The state board on Friday also will consider another emergency rule dealing with procedures for when students must quarantine because of COVID-19 diagnoses.
Titled “Pupil Attendance Records,” the proposed rule is intended to “provide criteria to avoid learning loss and consider a student in attendance, when under a ‘stay-home’ directive due to COVID-19.”