Florida’s Board of Education approved an emergency rule Friday that will allow private school vouchers if parents feel their children are being harassed by a school district's COVID-19 safety policies, including mask requirements.
The parents could request the vouchers under provisions that are usually used to protect children who are being bullied.
“'COVID-19 harassment' means any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct an individual student suffers in relation to, or as a result of, school district protocols for COVID-19, including masking requirements, the separation or isolation of students, or COVID-19 testing requirements, that have the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance,” the rule reads.
The board approved the measure at an emergency meeting Friday.
Schools and COVID
“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.
Last Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order banning schools from making it mandatory to wear face coverings. He has threatened to withhold funding from districts that defy the order.
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.
DeSantis has argued that parents should decide whether their kids wear masks at school.
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, saying 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.”
Two Florida school districts - Duval and Alachua - have decided to follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they restart classes next week because of dramatic rises in coronavirus infections.
The Duval County School Board is allowing parents to submit paperwork if they want their children not to wear masks. The Alachua County 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 both districts go back to school next Tuesday.
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.
In South Florida, districts are still undecided on their mask directives.
Jeff Foster is like many teachers in South Florida, concerned about the start of the school year with COVID-19 cases on the rise.
“There’s a combination of concern, fear, trepidation, whatever word you want to use,” Foster said. “We’re going to be in an enclosed space with 30 kids for an hour and a half at a time with four different groups."
It’s a thought that makes Foster uneasy with COVID-19 cases back on the rise and the battle over face masks in schools starting again.
Foster is a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and has a pre-existing heart condition.
“I’d like to have everybody in masks until we get control of this Delta variant,” he said.
It’s an idea Foster doesn’t think will work if passed.
“You’re uprooting your child really late in the game,” he said.
Neither does Rebecca, a parent in Broward County, who didn’t want her full name used.
“Although I haven’t heard it in its entirety, it’s probably ill-conceived,” Rebecca said. “It sounds like a knee-jerk reaction.”
“We’ve seen this Delta variant start to flare up over the last month in Florida, and now everyone seems to be scrambling like we didn’t know this could possibly happen,” Foster said.
Although Rebecca prefers to send her daughter to school without a mask, she says vouchers won’t solve the problem.
She says parents should be the only ones to decide if their child should wear a mask or not.
“Parents can be responsible for their own children,” she said. “If somebody feels more comfortable putting a mask on your child, by all means, do what you feel is best for your child.”
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