Florida accepts school vouchers for students who oppose masks
TALLAHASSEE, Florida – The Florida Board of Education on Friday decided to provide vouchers for private schools to parents who say a public school district’s mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children.
The decision to take private tuition out of public school funding created 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 ensure their children’s health and education.
DeSantis had ordered the state’s education department to find ways to pressure school districts against the creation of mask warrants and to punish them if they do. He said the rules could include withholding money from school districts or other actions permitted by Florida law.
The board then invoked an existing law intended to protect children from harassment, adding “COVID-19 harassment” as a prohibited form of discrimination. He defined this as “any threatening, discriminatory, insulting or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical behavior” that students experience as a result of COVID-19 protocols such as mask or test requirements and isolation measures that “Have the effect of significantly interfering with a student’s academic performance.
“We are not going to hurt the children. We are not going to take money that will harm children in any way, ”said Ben Gibson, board member.
But he said the rule approved by the board had the force of law and if school districts didn’t comply, the board could delay transferring the state’s money.
“If a parent wants their child to wear a mask at school, they should have this right. If a parent doesn’t want their child to wear a mask in school, they should be allowed to, ”Gibson said.
So far, two Florida school districts have decided to follow the recommendations of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they return to school next week, citing the dramatic increase in infections. coronavirus in Florida.
More than a dozen Florida parents filed a lawsuit in Miami federal court on Friday against DeSantis, the state Department of Education and some of the largest school districts, alleging that the ban on mask warrants violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. They say their disabled children will not be able to attend public schools with unmasked classmates because they are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.
Florida leads the country in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, dropping from 12,516 Thursday to 12,864, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Hospital data shows 2,680 of those patients required intensive care, using about 42% of the state’s intensive care beds, up from less than 20% they used two weeks ago.
Dan Smith, president of the Seminole Education Association, called the state of emergency “vindictive” against school districts that fail to comply with the governor’s order.
“Unfortunately, the governor does this in retaliation against districts that do not comply with him. I think what you see is the handful, the two or three districts at this point that are putting on mask warrants for the students, now the governor comes up with the hope scholarship and says, “You want to have that? 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, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, said it was putting the health of students, teachers and the community at risk.
“Do you know who is being bullied?” The citizens of this state are intimidated by a governor who denies them public and safe schools. Teachers and employees in these schools are intimidated and parents are intimidated to make a choice, ”Doromal said.
The governor’s office said the Hope Scholarship can also be used by unhappy parents 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 warrant.
Florida students could soon use state-backed vouchers to transfer to private schools if they oppose wearing masks in classrooms, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and education officials from the state contends that decisions about masks should be left to parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The State Board of Education is expected to hold a conference call on Friday, in part to consider an emergency rule that would expand the state’s Hope scholarship voucher program to allow students who do not want to wear face masks. transfer to private schools. The Hope Scholarship Program was originally intended to provide vouchers to students who have been bullied, for example.
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The meeting is part of a rule-making process triggered by a DeSantis executive order designed to prevent school districts from requiring students to wear masks. DeSantis argued that parents should have the right to decide whether their children wear masks.
A notice of the meeting published in the Florida Administrative Register on Thursday said the board will assess whether to modify the Hope scholarship program to provide parents “with a mechanism to transfer a child to a private school or another. school district as part of a Hope Scholarship when a school district COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a danger to their child’s health or education. “
The Hope Scholarship was established in 2018 and was championed by then-Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican who is now Education Commissioner. It has been underutilized since its launch, serving 388 students in the 2019-20 school year, according to Florida House analysis released in February.
Step Up for Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the Hope Scholarship Bonds, said Thursday it was not involved in the proposed rule.
“This is a proposal from the Board of Education, not something that Step Up For Students has come up with, but as always, we will faithfully follow state guidelines,” said Scott Kent, deputy director of communications. strategic planning, to the News Service of Florida. an email.
DeSantis’ executive order, released last week, threatened to fund school districts that impose mask warrants. But some districts are still continuing efforts to require masks for students in some or all grade levels, with the school year set to start next week.
At a press event last week in Cape Coral, DeSantis was asked if the “harm” caused to students by wearing the mask would qualify them to receive vouchers under the Hope Scholarship program.
The governor said he “should look into this” and took the opportunity to attack the forced masking policies again.
“One of the things that’s so frustrating about this whole experience is that some of the people who advocate for mitigation and mandates etc. never recognize the harms of what comes out of it,” DeSantis said at the time. of the media event.
As the 2021 legislative session approaches, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, pioneered a similar idea of creating a voucher program aimed specifically at enabling parents to escape school mask mandates. But Gruters, who is also chairman of the state’s Republican Party, ultimately failed to introduce a bill that would create the “Face Freedom scholarship”.
Democrats have criticized 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 Representative Anna Eskamani D-Orlando slammed the voucher proposal on Thursday.
“The distance that this state will go not only to fund public education, but also to achieve a politically motivated program on masks. If they were moving this fast on homelessness, imagine where we would be right now, ”Eskamani said in a tweet.
On Friday, the State Council will also consider another emergency rule regarding procedures to be followed when students must self-quarantine due to COVID-19 diagnoses.
Entitled “Student attendance records”, the proposed rule is intended to “provide criteria to avoid loss of learning and consider a student present, when subject to a“ stay at home ”directive due to COVID -19 ”.