MIAMI SHORES, FLA. (WSVN) - The Florida Department of Education has approved an emergency measure allowing parents to transfer their children out of schools that impose mask mandates using private school vouchers.
Parents will now be allowed to access vouchers for private schools if they feel COVID protocols “pose a health or educational danger to their child.”
The rule was approved during an emergency meeting on Friday.
“If a parent wants their child to wear a mask ay school, they should have that right. If a parent doesn’t want a child to wear a mask at school, it’s cool, they should have that right,” said Ben Gibson, vice chair of the Florida State Board of Education.
According to the Associated Press, 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.
“I would say 100% of the emails I have received on the subject, or on this meeting, has to do with masks,” said an official during the emergency meeting.
This comes as COVID cases among children continue to rise.
Doctors in South Florida said they’re seeing patients as young as 2 weeks old.
“Just to give you an idea, in June we saw 17 patients in the hospital here at Nicklaus Children’s. We’re already at 25 for the month of August,” said Nicklaus Children’s Hospital Dr. Marcos Mestre.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently banned school districts from enforcing mask mandates, not long after Broward schools decided to put a mandatory mask policy in place. The governor has threatened to defund districts that go against his orders.
Broward County Public Schools officials said they will follow the science and likely uphold their current mandatory mask policy.
“This isn’t really about politics, it’s about science, it’s about health safety, and if we’re not serious about that, people die,” said Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie.
The Broward County School Board is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss the matter.
The Miami-Dade County Public Schools district is expected to reach a decision about their mask wearing policy on Aug. 16.
“I think the best prevention, short of vaccination, is the wearing of masks,” said M-DCPS Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “I think it’s shameful that, unfortunately, political forces and threats of defunding education are squeezing students and potentially their well-being and that of teachers on this issue.”
However, some districts begin school next week, so the state moved quickly and enacted the emergency rule allowing parents to opt out of the mask mandate.
Parents can apply for a Hope Scholarship voucher, to switch to a private school, which was initially intended for a child who was being bullied.
“If a child, for whatever reason is harassed by other students or anyone at the school in connection with their health protocol, this rule allows a parent to access a scholarship that they could use to go to a different private school,” said Matthew Mears, general counsel with the Florida Department of Education.
It’s unclear how the state-backed voucher program will work and how quickly parents will be able to receive their vouchers.
“We, the State Board of Education, we have specific jurisdiction, we have specific tools in our toolbox, and this is really, as the governor’s orders laid out, this is an education issue, but it’s also a health issue,” said Gibson.
However, some parents are not happy with that they described as the governor’s abuse of power.
Elvin Dowling, a father from Miramar, has filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and the state of Florida.
“Your time with playing with the lives of the people of South Florida is over,” he said.
In the lawsuit, Dowling demanded that a court immediately step in and said that the governor is putting his three children at risk, especially with the rise in pediatric COVID cases across the state.
“When it comes to the health and well-being of students and our teachers, politics should not be a consideration or factor,” he said.
Some districts are considering putting all maskless children in one classroom and the masked students together. However, experts said, without universal mask mandates, transmission rates will skyrocket.
As of Friday evening, the governor’s office has not specified how much money has been allotted for the vouchers.
The Department of Health and Human Services said there are currently 157 children hospitalized due to COVID in Florida. Fifty-four of those submissions were made on Thursday.
Florida now leads the nation in COVID hospitalizations for children.
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