As Florida students prepared to return to schools from winter break, coronavirus omicron infection levels rose so rapidly that many parents wondered whether new mask mandates might emerge.
That law doesn’t apply to private schools, though — even if they receive public funding.
“For the opening of the second semester, every county in the diocese in which we have schools has exceeded the ten percent threshold, and masks will therefore be required indoors at every school until we see the positivity rate drop,” Diocese of St. Augustine deacon Scott Conway wrote in a letter to families.
The stark difference between the public and private schools hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some say the governor and Legislature, which held a special session in November to declare their opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, have created a double standard.
“Help me understand this!” tweeted Miami-Dade school superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “Students in Florida can use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools that impose student mask mandates, when public schools, the bedrock of democracy in America, are legislatively forbidden from doing so.”
The Archdiocese of Miami required masks in all indoor activities, including school classes and church services. It has 9,933 students in its schools who receive some type of state-funded scholarship, according to scholarship funding organization Step Up For Students.
Statewide, 35,199 children attend Catholic schools using state-funded scholarships. Thousands more accept vouchers to attend other private schools.
Despite making strong statements opposing required masks in schools, Republican lawmakers crafted the legislation specifically to omit private schools in their decree. State Sen. Danny Burgess, a Pasco County Republican who sponsored the bill, said the aim was to protect families from government intrusion into their decisions.
“Florida’s robust school choice options provide opportunities for tens of thousands of students to attend schools their parents choose,” Burgess said via e-mail. “The law we passed protects the rights of parents at our neighborhood public schools who do not want their child in a mask and may not have the opportunity or means to send the child to a different school.”
The Legislature has long recognized the distinction between public and private organizations in setting its rules, said Jenna Sarkissian, spokesperson for the House Speaker’s Office.
“Government’s role in dictating the actions of a governmental entity is much broader than our role in dictating the actions of a private organization,” Sarkissian said via text message. “During special session, that differentiation informed all of the policy choices that leadership made.”
In enforcing the laws, the Florida Department of Education keeps both public and private schools in mind, department spokesperson Jared Ochs said.
“We encourage all schools, including private schools to follow the science and utilize the best practices in education,” Ochs said via email. “This includes not requiring children to wear masks, not quarantining healthy students, and maintaining in-person learning.”
If a private school is not following those guidelines, he said, “we work directly with that school” as needed.
It wasn’t the first time the Legislature adopted a standard that applied to one set of schools but not another. In recent years, for instance, it approved laws on the teaching of Holocaust history and civics that neither charter nor private schools were required to follow, despite leaders’ declarations that the topics were of critical importance.
Jacksonville civic activist Susan Aertker repeatedly has called upon lawmakers to end the practice. If the laws are important enough to enact, Aertker contended, they should apply equally to all schools.
“It seems suspect,” she said. “They’re putting new rules on the schools run by the elected boards. It seems the state should put less rules on them, because they are monitored by the people.”
Like Carvalho, Aertker used the term “publicly funded schools” to draw a broader circle around all schools that receive some taxpayer support, whether district, charter or voucher-accepting private schools. She argued they all should have to meet the same state standard, or be given the same flexibility in adopting certain portions.
“If we’re publicly funding it ... we have a stake in making sure our money is well spent,” Aertker said.
State Rep. Patricia Williams, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, had no expectation that the Republican majority would adopt such a stance.
“Politics have stepped in, and politics is making the decision,” Williams said. “It doesn’t seem like they’re looking at what’s best for the people.”
She contended that the Republican legislative leaders are following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lead and will not deviate.
“I believe that all Floridians need to be healthy, prosperous and safe. Our school systems have put measures in place, and our governor has taken away home rule,” Williams said. “We’re not all on the same page.”
Not all private schools act the same way. The Diocese of St. Petersburg schools retained a mask-optional policy, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the state.
Superintendent Chris Pastura said he trusted his students’ parents to make well-informed decisions, just as they appear to trust the leadership of the schools they have chosen. Pastura said regardless of the path they choose, educators share a common goal.
“Everyone of my fellow colleagues in public and private schools right now, I am 100 percent confident they are doing everything they can to keep their students safe,” he said.
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