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State News

Florida Students Who Oppose Masks Could Get Vouchers

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LM OTERO / ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Florida students could soon use state-backed vouchers to transfer to private schools if they object to wearing masks in classrooms, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials argue that decisions about masks should be left up to parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The State Board of Education is set to hold a conference call Friday, in part to consider an emergency rule that would expand the state’s Hope Scholarship voucher program to allow students who don't want to wear masks to transfer to private schools. The Hope Scholarship program was originally intended to offer vouchers to students who have been the victims of such things as bullying.

The meeting is part of a rule-making process triggered by a DeSantis executive order designed to prevent school districts from requiring that students wear masks. DeSantis has argued that parents should have the right to decide whether their children wear masks.

A notice of the meeting posted in Thursday’s Florida Administrative Register said the board will weigh whether to change the Hope Scholarship program to provide parents “with a mechanism to transfer a child to a private school or another school district under a Hope Scholarship when a school district’s COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a health or educational danger to their child.”

The Hope Scholarship was established in 2018 and was championed by then-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Republican who now serves as education commissioner. It has been under-utilized since its launch, serving 388 students during the 2019-2020 school year, according to a Florida House analysis published in February.

Step Up for Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer Hope Scholarship vouchers, said Thursday that it was not involved in the proposed rule.

“This is a proposal from the Board of Education, not something Step Up For Students has proposed, but as always we will faithfully carry out state directives,” Scott Kent, the organization’s assistant director of strategic communications, told The News Service of Florida in an email.

DeSantis’ executive order, issued last week, threatened funding for school districts that impose mask mandates. But some districts are nevertheless moving ahead with efforts to require masks for students in some or all grade levels with the academic year set to begin next week.

During a press event last week in Cape Coral, DeSantis was asked if “harm” to students from mask-wearing would qualify them to receive vouchers through the Hope Scholarship program.

The governor said he would “have to look at that” and took the opportunity to again attack forced masking policies.

“One of the things that’s so frustrating about this whole experience is, some of the people that are advocating for mitigation measures and mandates and stuff, they never acknowledge the harms of what comes with that,” DeSantis said at the media event.

Heading into the 2021 legislative session, Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, floated a similar idea of creating a voucher program specifically aimed at letting parents escape school mask mandates. But Gruters, who is also chairman of the state Republican Party, ultimately did not file a bill that would’ve created the “Face Freedom Scholarship.”

Democrats have bashed DeSantis’ efforts to prevent school districts from requiring masks as the state grapples with a spike in COVID-19 cases caused by the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus. State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, criticized the voucher proposal Thursday.

“The distance this state will go to not only defund public education but to fulfill a politically motivated agenda about masks. If they moved this fast on homelessness imagine where we would be right now,” Eskamani said in a tweet.

The state board on Friday also will consider another emergency rule dealing with procedures for when students must quarantine because of COVID-19 diagnoses.

Titled “Pupil Attendance Records,” the proposed rule is intended to “provide criteria to avoid learning loss and consider a student in attendance, when under a ‘stay-home’ directive due to COVID-19.”