Public school students facing mask mandates could be given school vouchers to transfer schools under an emergency rule approved Friday, and students could receive protection from “harassment” based on their decision whether to wear masks.
The State Board of Education released a proposed emergency rule ahead of its meeting called after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a prohibition on mask mandates in schools last week. Classes start next week in several school districts.
The rule includes a definition for “COVID-19 harassment” as targeted conduct against students stemming from a school district’s COVID-19 protocols. The list of prohibited protocols include mask requirements, separating or isolating students or providing COVID-19 testing requirements.
Such protocols “pose a health or educational danger” to students and lead to learning loss, according to the Board of Education.
DeSantis tied the order to the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which he signed into law in June. Similarly, board members stressed that the order is about protecting parental choice and students.
After concerns from some members of the public that the rule harms their right to protect their children’s safety, Chair Tom Grady closed the meeting by saying the board uses a “single filter” in its considerations: what’s best for students.
“At times it may appear to be in conflict with what’s best for other groups, but we focus on what’s best for the kids and the students and the system for which we’re responsible,” Grady said.
Students affected by “threatening, discriminatory, insulting or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct” would be eligible to apply for a Hope Scholarship. That scholarship enables K-12 public school students who face harassment or other adverse treatment at school to transfer to private schools or other districts.
“Unnecessarily isolating, quarantining, or subjecting children to physical COVID-19 constraints in schools poses a threat to developmental upbringing and should not occur absent a heightened showing of actual illness or serious risk of illness to other students,” the rule’s notice reads.
The Board of Education’s rule works in tandem with a Department of Health rule requiring schools to let parents or guardians “opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.” Surgeon General Scott Rivkees signed that rule Friday, along with rules for COVID-19 symptoms, positives and exposures.
DeSantis celebrated those orders in a statement Friday afternoon.
“When the wellbeing of our students and our constitutional freedoms are at stake, we will stand up for Florida families,” he said. “Giving parents options to make these decisions is not controversial. I’m proud that today we took action to make sure school administrators respect parents’ rights to make educational and healthcare decisions for their families. I will continue to fight to protect Florida’s families from government overreach and to preserve their God-given rights.”
Despite DeSantis’ mask-optional order, several counties are moving forward with alternative mandates, including mask rules for employees and visitors or while students are on buses.
Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna mandated employees wear masks indoors when within six feet of students when school starts next week. He also requested from the Governor the ability to implement a K-8 mask mandate.
Duval County students must wear masks unless their parents opt them out. Alachua County students must wear masks for the first two weeks.
DeSantis’ order authorizes Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to “pursue all legal means available to ensure school districts adhere to Florida law.” That includes potentially defunding districts that defy the executive order.
The Board of Education, which oversees public schools for the Department of Education, also considered a rule allowing quarantining students to be counted as attending classes for funding purposes. Those students must have access to assignments and curricula.
With classes set to resume in the coming days and weeks, schools have reemerged as a political battleground amid the pandemic.
Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward County Democrat, sent Corcoran a letter Thursday claiming the proposed measure breaks state law.
“The Governor does not have the statutory authority to instruct your Department to engage in rulemaking, nor does your Department have the authority to do so on this particular issue,” Farmer wrote.
Individuals across the state called into Friday’s meeting with praise and criticism over the rule.
One parent wanted the Board of Education to take the rules further to prevent COVID-19 harassment in the first place.
Kirby Thomas, a parent in Leon County, disagreed that taking proven health care precautions is harassment and called the rule “irresponsible and reckless.”
“This is irresponsible and reckless language, and it’s quite frankly reprehensible,” she said. “I urge you to look beyond the false platitudes of parental rights and personal freedoms that this rule espouses.”