Florida OKs School Vouchers to Protect Children from 'COVID Harassment' in Districts Mandating Masks
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Florida's Board of Education will provide private school vouchers to parents who say a public school district's mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has long supported efforts to expand school privatization and says parents should be able to decide how to provide for their children's health and education.
DeSantis ordered the state education department to come up with ways to pressure school districts against enforcing mask mandates and create consequences if they do. He said the rules could include withholding money from school districts or other actions allowed under Florida law.
The state board on Friday invoked an existing law to clarify eligibility for the Hope Scholarship, which is meant to protect children against bullying, adding "COVID-19 harassment" as a prohibited form of discrimination. It defined this as "any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct" students suffer as a result of COVID-19 protocols such as mask or testing requirements and isolation measures that "have the effect of substantially interfering with a student's educational performance."
"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.
Parents will be able to request the vouchers under provisions normally used to protect children who are being bullied.
In response to the governor's order, the Florida 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.
Fox 4 reports non-compliance could mean a reduction of funding as DeSantis' outlined in his executive order.
So far, three Florida school districts have decided to follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they restart classes next week, citing Florida's dramatic rise in COVID-19 infections.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen Florida parents filed a lawsuit 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.
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, noting that 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."
For years, Republicans have pushed to expand the school voucher programs, which include vouchers for low-income families and students with disabilities. The board said it was appropriate to expand the vouchers to protect children from bullying to include COVID-19 protocols.
Voucher opponents say money is diverted from public to private schools once the child transfers.
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