School vouchers to avoid mask rules? Florida education officials are considering it

The State Board of Education will hold an emergency meeting Friday to discuss it.
Opponents to mandatory school masking rules demonstrate before the Hillsborough County School Board meeting on May 18, 2021.
Opponents to mandatory school masking rules demonstrate before the Hillsborough County School Board meeting on May 18, 2021. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Aug. 5, 2021|Updated Aug. 5, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Florida education officials on Friday morning will consider a proposed emergency rule that would free up school vouchers for families who want to transfer their kids out of public schools that impose rules on masking. But many of the proposal’s details remain foggy.

The proposed rule says parents would be allowed to apply for a Hope scholarship — whose legislative intent was to allow students who are being bullied to transfer schools — when a “school district’s COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a health or educational danger to their child.”

“The agency finds that the potential for student learning loss and educational disruption with schools starting next week, created an immediate danger to the public health, safety and welfare of students and requires emergency action,” the rule states.

But hours after the Florida Department of Education noticed the meeting for Friday at 11 a.m., the proposed rule’s language was still being crafted by the state agency. When reached for comment, a Department of Education spokeswoman could not provide any clarity on whether the proposed rule would make all parents eligible for vouchers, whether they oppose masks and want their kids to go to a school without a mask mandate, or the other way around.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office and the Department of Education also did not answer what the financial impact of this proposed rule would be; how much money is available in Hope scholarships for students to claim; how many students may get vouchers if the rule is approved; whether schools would be required to accept these scholarships, and when the public would be able to see the actual rule language.

The public would be able to provide input on the proposed rule through a conference call: 1-800-367-2403 and confirmation code 8000177.

DeSantis foreshadowed the move last week when he issued an executive order instructing state education and health officials to write rules that would protect parents’ rights to decide whether their children will mask up in schools. Now, the state Board of Education’s proposed rule whose language seems to imply that state officials could be equating school mask mandates to bullying children by using the Hope scholarship as the vehicle for school transfers over masking objections.

Related: Opposition grows to DeSantis' school mask edict. 'One size does not fit all.'

Is this a path for Broward County?

The emergency rule is also indirectly conceding that public school districts may, in fact, leave in place mask mandates such as the one currently adopted by Broward County despite the governor’s saying they should not and that his executive order would prevent them by giving parents the choice.

Mark Richard, an employment and education lawyer who represents teacher unions, including the Florida Education Association, said it is difficult to do a legal analysis without having the full details and language of the proposed emergency rule. He added that it’s “completely puzzling why it has not been distributed” as of late Thursday afternoon considering the meeting will be Friday at 11 a.m.

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But the state’s move is raising legal questions, Richard said.

“Across the entire state, parents are raising multiple legal questions about the validity of these orders because, after all, they are putting their children’s safety first,” he said. “It raises many constitutional issues regarding whether there is even authority to issue this anti-mask mandate in the first place.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late July recommended that everyone, regardless of their vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in K-12 schools, while emphasizing a full reopening of schools in the fall. The federal guidelines were revised in response to the highly contagious Delta variant spreading nationwide as children under 12 remain ineligible for vaccinations.

In practice, the proposed rule could steer more students toward private schools or out of public school districts as a result of COVID-19 protocols.

Democrats say it’s ‘politically motivated’

Democrats in the state Legislature were quick to criticize the rule, with some calling it “politically motivated.”

“The distance this state will go to not only defund public education but to fulfill a politically motivated agenda about masks,” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.

Senate Education Committee Vice Chair Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, took issue with Republican leaders using the Hope scholarship for something that it was not created or intended for.

“This is unfortunate and very disingenuous to the process. The Hope scholarship was to be used for students who were being bullied in public schools, and now we are expanding this to be for parents who don’t want their kids to wear a mask,” Jones said on Twitter.

DeSantis bolstered his battle against mask mandates in schools — and his political team is fundraising off of it — after the Broward and Gadsden county school systems decided to require that students wear masks when classes start this month. The governor’s fight against masking kids has even fueled a feud with the White House. President Joe Biden said DeSantis should “get out of the way” and let schools and businesses impose mask mandates.

Related: DeSantis to Biden: 'I don't want to hear a blip about COVID from you'

On Tuesday night, the Alachua County School Board voted to require students to wear masks for the first two weeks of school.

Hospitals admitting more children with COVID

More children were admitted to hospitals in Florida on Tuesday with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections than any other state in the nation. Only Texas reported a higher total number of pediatric patients in hospitals with confirmed COVID-19 on Tuesday — 142 children — compared to 135 in Florida.

The governor issued an executive order that states the Board of Education can withhold funds from districts that don’t comply with laws or rules regarding masking mandates for students. DeSantis said all public school districts should give parents the options on masks.

Broward County Public Schools had initially intended to comply with the governor’s order threatening to withhold state funds, but the school district reversed course on Wednesday, saying the mask mandate will remain in place until further notice.

“In light of the governor’s executive order, the district is awaiting further guidance before rendering a decision on the mask mandate for the upcoming school year,” the district said in its updated statement.

Three Florida Democrats held a virtual press conference Thursday to criticize DeSantis’ handling of the ongoing spike in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations around the state.

The Zoom call was reminiscent of virtual pleas from Democrats throughout 2020, before vaccines became widely available, unemployment claims soared and businesses were closed.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lois Frankel and Darren Soto called on local governments, school districts and businesses to “use some creativity” and seek ways around DeSantis’ executive orders that ban mask mandates and vaccine requirements.

“We need to fight back,” Frankel said. “If he’s not going to change his ways I just urge everyone in the public and businesses and local governments to put on their creative hats and legally try to get around what he’s trying to do.”

Wasserman Schultz said she supports a statewide indoor mask mandate for everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated, based on new CDC guidelines. DeSantis is opposed to mask mandates, and Wasserman Schultz said local governments need to take matters into their own hands.

“I think it’s important that throughout the crisis we follow the science,” Wasserman Schultz said. “If he doesn’t want to impose a statewide mask mandate he should get out of the damn way and stop endangering people’s lives. If you’re vaccinated you should wear a mask so you can make sure you protect yourself and protect people from unvaccinated people.”

Wasserman Schultz said local school boards, like Broward County, can look to court decisions in other states as they decide whether or not to attempt to impose mask guidelines.

“There’s been numerous court decisions throughout the country that federal funds cannot be withheld and used as a weapon to impose policy,” Wasserman Schultz said. “I would say to the [Broward] School Board, you have the law on your side, court cases behind you and the overwhelming support of your faculty and staff.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty and Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.