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State Says Students Can Change Schools For Mask Harassment

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

The Board of Education will allow vouchers if parents feel their children are being bullied under a district’s COVID safety policies. Also, the Health Department gave parents the right to opt out of mandates.

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

Also Friday, the Florida Department of Health announced a rule requiring school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates.

Both moves come a week after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that bans local school districts from issuing mask mandates for classrooms, which flouts guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

At least four school districts are trying to legally work around the order. And a group of parents with disabled children have filed a federal suit challenging the order.

In Friday's emergency virtual meeting, the Board of Education approved a change to the Hope Scholarship program. 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 the program to include what it calls COVID-19 harassment, defined as “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, testing and quarantine requirements.

“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," Board Vice Chairman Ben Gibson said. "And the board has absolute authority to define harassment further, which we’ve done.”

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

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, of 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.

The board also decided that students who must quarantine due to coronavirus will be counted present if they have to learn at home. However, several people in the virtual meeting expressed concern that many districts lack remote learning programs.

Board Chairman Tom Grady replied that families still have access to the Florida Virtual School and district-run virtual schools. However, students cannot just pop in and out of those programs.

Meantime, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and the Health Department, after their own emergency meeting, directed that any COVID mitigation actions taken by districts comply with the new Parents’ Bill of Rights, and ensures that parents’ right to make decisions regarding the masking of their children is protected.

The rule reads that “students may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student” from wearing masks,

The Parents' Bill of Rights, signed into law June 29, says government “may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health” of their child.

Also on Friday, parents who have children with disabilities from multiple counties filed a federal lawsuit challenging DeSantis’ executive order, alleging it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

The lawsuit names as defendants DeSantis, the Department of Education, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the school boards in Orange, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Broward, Pasco, Alachua and Volusia counties.

information from WFSU reporter Lynn Hatter , News Service of Florida and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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