Florida education leaders tie mask wearing to ‘harassment,’ would allow school transfers

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in Miami on May 4.

By John Kennedy, Capital Bureau, USA TODAY NETWORK-FLORIDA, August 6, 2021

TALLAHASSEE – Students subjected to the “harassment” of having to wear masks in class would be eligible to transfer into another public or private school under an emergency rule adopted Friday by the state Board of Education.

The move is the latest thrust by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration against mask mandates endorsed by several Florida school districts on the eve of the start of school, amid one of the nation’s biggest surge in new Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“You can’t have more local control than control by a parent,” said Tom Grady, Board chair, during an hour-long, emergency phone meeting Friday.

Hope Scholarships, which could be made available to parents wanting to keep their kids free of face coverings in mask-required districts, have been available to students who have been assaulted or face harassment, hazing or bullying in their schools.

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But the rule adopted by the board would extend those scholarships “to instances where a child has been subjected to Covid-19 harassment.” They “will provide parents another means to protect the health and education of their child.”

The scholarships allow students to transfer to another public school or attend a private school. Hope Scholarships were created in 2018 and financed through motorists who can choose to divert a portion of their sales tax on vehicle purchases to the program.

They’re among several private school voucher programs that have proliferated in the more than 20 years Florida has been under Republican leadership.

‘Harassment’ may include ‘masking requirements’ or ‘isolation’

The rule defines “Covid-19 harassment,” as “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….”

A separate rule released Friday by the Florida Department of Health specifically demands that districts provide an “opt-out” for parents, so that their students would not have to wear masks in class.

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The DOH rule is designed to blunt the approach taken by Broward, Duval and Alachua counties, which this week took action intended to require mask-wearing by students when they return to class.

DeSantis last week pledged that he would block attempts by counties to impose mask requirements. But those defying the governor argue that with Florida no longer under a state of emergency that he allowed to lapse in June, the Florida Constitution gives school boards the power to decide the conditions under which schools operate.

DeSantis, however, appears intent on backing his vow to allow only optional mask-wearing in counties. Under an executive order the governor signed last week, counties that require masks could face a loss of state funding.

“In Florida, there will be no lockdowns, there will be no school closures, there will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in announcing his stance last Friday in Fort Myers, at a campaign-like rally, where no one appeared masked.

Board of Education vice-chair Ben Gibson said the new rule stemmed from parental choice: “If you’re going to have a mask requirement, you have to have the ability to opt out,” he said, adding that harassment over that decision should not be allowed.

State money could be held from districts that try to require masks on students

Gibson also brought up the prospect of withholding state dollars from districts.

“We’re not going to hurt kids. We’re not going to pull funding that hurts kids in any way,” Gibson said, but he added that districts “have to comply with these new policies.”

Some parents were able to comment by telephoning into the conference call meeting Friday. There was a divide between those who wanted mask mandates and others who ranged from those touting the need for parents to make the decision, to some who questioned vaccinations and whether the pandemic was real.

Several parents also asked whether the Hope Scholarship option would be made available to those who wanted to transfer because of a lack of mask requirements in a school. That question went unanswered by the board.

One Jacksonville parent identified as “John” said the board’s rule does nothing to protect children from the virus, but rather “protects students from masks, which actually protects students from Covid.”

“Will you be providing scholarships to parents who want to send their children to safe schools that require masks?” he added.

Cindy Thomas, a Leon County parent, called the rule a “moral outrage,” saying a “universal mask mandate … holds everyone to the same healthy standard.”

“What about my constitutional parental rights to a safe public education for my child?” Thomas added.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

 Image Credits: Matias J. Ocner/AP