Florida OKs school vouchers in districts requiring masks

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – 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.

The parents could request the vouchers under provisions normally used to protect children who are being bullied.

The meeting was scheduled a week after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the department to come up with ways of having school districts that mandate mask-wearing provide other alternatives for parents, saying they had the legal right to make decisions about their children’s health and education.

After the School Board of Broward County voted to implement a face mask mandate, DeSantis issued his July 30 executive order to ban the policy at all of the state’s public schools. Despite this and threats of losing state funding, the challenges of the new surge in COVID cases are prompting some school districts to push for the mandates.

The State Board of Education’s response was to schedule an emergency meeting at 11 a.m., on Friday to consider emergency rules. The priority wasn’t the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to deal with the new Delta variant’s threat of infection to both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated — but to protect “parents’ freedom to choose.”

“It is abundantly clear that the task set before you by Governor DeSantis is nothing more than an attempt to take advantage of our current public health crisis by siphoning even more money away from our public schools,” Florida Sen. Gary Farmer wrote in a letter Thursday to Florida’s Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.

According to the emergency meeting notice, some of the State Board of Education members agreed that the disagreements over face mask mandates at schools presented “the potential for student learning loss and educational disruption with schools starting next week,” and “an immediate danger to the public health, safety, and welfare of students.”

Some of the members wanted to provide parents with a choice through the state’s Hope Scholarship program, which offers victims of bullying in public schools access to private education. Farmer, a Democrat from Lighthouse Point, previously argued that if the State Board of Education created such a state program during the emergency meeting it would be “unconstitutional and illegal.”

The State Board of Education’s seven members are Tom Grady, the chair; Benjamin Gibson, the vice-chair; Monesia Brown, Marva Johnson, a Parkland victim’s father Ryan Petty, Andy Tuck, and Joe York.

The Broward County Public School Board will meet on Tuesday to discuss mask usage at their schools and whether they will fight against DeSantis’ order, while officials from Miami-Dade County Public Schools say they are reviewing their policy.

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Local 10 News Reporters Hatzel Vela and Liane Morejon contributed to this report.

About the Authors:

Amanda Batchelor is the Digital Executive Producer for Local10.com.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.