TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida’s Board of Education approved an emergency rule Friday that will allow private school vouchers if parents feel their children are being harassed by a school district’s COVID-19 safety policies, including mask requirements.
The parents could request the vouchers under provisions that are usually used to protect children who are being bullied.
"‘COVID-19 harassment’ means any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct an individual student suffers in relation to, or as a result of, school district protocols for COVID-19, including masking requirements, the separation or isolation of students, or COVID-19 testing requirements, that have the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance," the rule reads.
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.
Meanwhile, a group of parents and lawyers, including some from the Tampa Bay area, filed a lawsuit Friday night, just four days before classes start, challenging the governor’s order on mask mandates.
The suit demands a Leon County Court block the order in time for districts to install mask requirements.
DeSantis said in his order that the rules could include withholding money from school districts or other actions allowed under Florida law. At a news conference Friday he 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, saying 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."
The plaintiffs say the governor is overstepping the state constitution, which they say only allows school boards to make those decisions.
"These individual school districts can do what is best for their individual county, looking at the COVID data within their individual county," attorney for the plaintiffs Erin Woolums said.
Two 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 because of dramatic rises in coronavirus infections. Florida now leads the country in COVID-19 related hospitalizations.
The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 rose from 12,516 on Thursday to 12,864, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Hospital data shows 2,680 of those patients required intensive care, using about 42% of the ICU beds in the state, compared to less than 20% they were using two weeks ago.
The CDC said the number of new cases being reported by the state has raised Florida’s 7-day average to an all-time high of 18,120.
School boards in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, and Alachua County, home to Gainesville, decided this week to require mask-wearing indoors, citing the rise in hospitalizations.
The Duval County School Board is allowing parents to submit paperwork if they want their children not to wear masks. The Alachua County board said it had voted to require masks for the first two weeks of school, a decision that will be re-evaluated in two weeks. Students in both districts go back to school next Tuesday.
In South Florida, districts are still undecided on their mask directives.
The Broward County School Board, which covers Fort Lauderdale and suburbs, had voted to require masks after hours of contentious debate that included a screaming match from angry anti-mask parents who set fire to masks and held picket signs outside. The board reversed course Monday over fear of losing funding, but on Wednesday said on Twitter that they are "waiting for guidance" in light of the governor’s orders.
The Miami-Dade school district hasn’t said whether masks will continue to be optional, as they were, or required.
Separately late Thursday, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced that weekly COVID-19 testing will be required for all 29,000 non-school county employees unless they show proof of vaccination amid a surge of infections from the delta variant of the coronavirus. The policy takes effect Aug. 16.
"We’ve endured too much and seen too many families hurting. We have the power to avoid what is truly preventable," the mayor said in a tweet on Thursday urging people to get the vaccine," Cava said.
The county also hired Jared Moskowitz, who oversaw Florida’s pandemic response as director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management until he stepped down in the spring, to be a special advisor on the county’s COVID response, she said.
Moskowitz, a Democrat from South Florida who worked with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis until deciding to leave the office in April, retweeted the mayor’s announcement of his hiring. His Twitter handle — MASKowitz — shows his difference with DeSantis, who has refused to order a mask mandate in Florida.