Students in mask-optional schools could transfer to private schools requiring masks under the Department of Education’s emergency mask rules.
The department’s “COVID-19 harassment” rules, adopted Friday, were largely reported as the state’s way to give an alternative to parents who say a public school district’s mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children. However, the DeSantis administration said Monday that the voucher emergency rules work both ways. That’s despite the administration highlighting it as option for parents seeking more relaxed mask policies.
“If parents wanted their kids to go to school with a mask mandate and there was a private school that had one, they can use the Hope Scholarship to send their kids there. It goes both ways,” Press Secretary Christina Pushaw told Florida Politics.
Private schools aren’t bound by the same rules the state imposed on public schools, though because the schools are private, it’s not immediately clear which ones are mandating mask usage among students.
Using the Hope Scholarship, typically used to protect students from bullying and harassment, to avoid “COVID-19 harassment” provides flexibility for parents, she continued.
“It’s really about giving power to the parents to make the best choices for their own kids, because every kid is different,” Pushaw said. “That’s one reason why the Governor doesn’t believe in these blanket mandates, because they can be detrimental to some kids. But some parents might feel it’s the best choice for their kids.”
The issue of mask requirements in schools flared up in recent weeks as Florida sees record-breaking hospitalizations and case loads for COVID-19, attributed to a spike in the highly contagious delta variant. Unlike in previous waves, more children are being hospitalized for COVID-19.
Classes start this week in several public school districts.
The Board of Education adopted the emergency rule after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a prohibition on mask mandates in schools late last month.
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 during Friday’s meeting that the order is about protecting parental choice and students.
In effect, the Hope Scholarship rules would allow parents to avoid the state-imposed mask-optional rule.
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 and the administration stand firm in their threat to cut funding for school boards that require masks for students. The Board of Education could move to withhold the salary of district superintendents or school board members who impose mask requirements, Pushaw said.