TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — 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 to clarify eligibility for the Hope Scholarship, which is 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.
In response to the governor’s order, the Department of Health approved a rule saying students can wear masks, but school districts must allow parents to opt their children out of any local mandates.
So far, three 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 with less than 20% they were using two weeks ago.
The Florida Department of Health published its weekly statistics showing a rise of seven-day average cases from 15,817 last Friday to 19,250, the highest average in the pandemic for the third time this week. The state tallied 616 deaths in one week, raising the total COVID-19 death toll to 39,695.
The number of people getting vaccinated is also rising, with more than 380,000 people getting them in the last seven-day period, compared with 334,000 the previous week.
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.”
For years, Republicans have pushed to expand the school voucher programs, which 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 transfers.
School boards in Orange County, home to Orlando; Duval County, home to Jacksonville; and Alachua County, home to Gainesville, decided this week to require mask-wearing indoors.
The Duval and Orange boards are allowing parents to submit paperwork if they want their children not to wear masks. The Alachua board said it had voted to require masks for the first two weeks of school, a decision that will be reevaluated in two weeks. Students in all three districts go back to school Tuesday.
South Florida districts remained undecided Friday on their mask directives.
The Broward County School Board, which covers Fort Lauderdale and suburbs, had voted to require masks after hours of contentious debate that included a screaming match from angry anti-mask parents who set fire to masks and held picket signs outside. The board reversed course Monday over fear of losing funding, but on Wednesday said on Twitter that they are “waiting for guidance” in light of the governor’s orders.
The Miami-Dade school district hasn’t said whether masks will continue to be optional, as they were, or required.
Separately, late Thursday, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced that weekly COVID-19 testing will be required for all 29,000 non-school county employees unless they show proof of vaccination amid a surge of infections from the delta variant of the coronavirus. The policy takes effect Aug. 16.
“We’ve endured too much and seen too many families hurting. We have the power to avoid what is truly preventable,” the mayor said in a tweet on Thursday urging people to get the vaccine,” Cava said.
Associated Press Writer Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this story.