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Florida Approves School Vouchers In Districts Requiring Masks

Girl getting a Covid shot
Marta Lavandier
Francesca Anacleto, 12, receives her first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shot from nurse Jorge Tase on Aug. 4, 2021, in Miami Beach.

Florida’s Board of Education has approved an emergency rule to allow private school vouchers if parents feel their children are being harassed by a school district’s COVID-19 safety policies, including requirements to wear masks.

Florida’s Board of Education has approved an emergency rule to allow private school vouchers to parents who say their school district’s mask-wearing mandates amount to child harassment.

COVID-19 safety policies include requirements to wear masks.

The Board of Education approved a change to the Hope Scholarship program during the emergency meeting.

The program provides funding for K-12 public school students to transfer to a private school if they are subjected to harassment or bullying.

Education officials extended this definition to what it calls COVID-19 harassment. Parents could say a mask mandate in schools falls under this category.

Board vice chairman Ben Gibson defended the move.

“I’ve seen reports that we don’t have the authority to do this. I think the rule is narrowly tailored, it aligns to the statute that created the HOPE scholarship," Gibson said. "And the board has absolute authority to define harassment further, which we’ve done.”

The meeting was scheduled a week after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the department to come up with ways to pressure school districts not to impose mask mandates, saying parents had the legal right to make decisions about their children’s health and education.

The measures come as students prepare to begin a new school year amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Some parents argue the rule is irresponsible and on the wrong side of public health. Others say it doesn’t go far enough. Dr. Hajar Kadivar, a physician in Pinellas County, says the rule is problematic for other reasons:

“I am concerned about the use of harassment. Medical protocol is not harassment. Public health is not harassment," she said.

Florida Department of Education General Counsel Matt Mears said the rule would also apply to families whose kids are bullied for wearing masks. Students can transfer to another public school or private school.

The Board of Education also approved a rule that will allow students to be counted as present at school if they’re at home quarantining.

“The aim is to avoid learning loss for any students who are temporarily quarantined so that the students will not be disadvantaged," said Florida Department of Education General Counsel Matt Mears.

Parent comments turned to concerns over HOW quarantined students would learn at home. Monroe County School Board member Sue Waltanski notes many districts, like hers, dropped their hybrid remote learning programs.

“This year those were canceled and we were told kids had to learn through full virtual or in-person so I am wondering if this rule would alleviate that requirement and allow us to go back to our innovative learning program which was used to teach kids in quarantine…I hope it does," Waltanski said.

Families may still have access to the state’s Florida Virtual School and district-run virtual schools, but students cannot just pop in and out of those programs.

Information from WUSF staff and WFSU reporter Lynn Hatter contributed to this report.