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DeSantis clamps down on student mask rules as Florida breaks another Covid record

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push to stop school mask mandates plowed ahead on Friday despite a legal challenge from parents, with education officials enacting a rule to protect non-masked students from “COVID-19 harassment.”

The developments all but ensured Florida’s battle over face coverings for K-12 students will drag out even as new Delta variant infections sweep through the state at a record-setting pace.

Florida’s Department of Health on Friday adopted an emergency rule allowing school districts to skirt rigid mask requirements for students, essentially giving kids the ability to “opt out” of any local mandates. At the same time, the state Board of Education approved a new rule that offers parents vouchers to send their children to private schools or even a different school district other counties if they object to masks.

The policies, which came at the order DeSantis, set the stage for the approaching school year with several counties challenging the Republican governor’s opposition to expanding safety measures. The actions underscored the political stakes for DeSantis as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations hit new records.

“If a school district is going to have a mask requirement, they have to allow for parents to opt-out their student,” said Ben Gibson, vice chair of Florida’s Board of Education. “It’s prioritizing parental choice.”

DeSantis has come under increased criticism from President Joe Biden, Democrats and health care professionals for downplaying the severity of the virus and preventing cities and schools from enacting public health restrictions or mandates.

The Republican governor has made his resistance to mandates and lockdowns central to his appeal as he marches toward reelection and an expected presidential bid in 2024. But his policies are under increased scrutiny amid the spike in cases statewide. On Friday, Florida reported more than 22,000 new infections, the highest single-day number since the pandemic started.

By allowing students to opt out of mask mandates, state agencies drew a line against counties like Alachua and Broward that have enacted blanket, district-wide student face covering requirements. At least one district, Duval County, approved a mask mandate with an opt-out clause built in, which appears to be in line with the DeSantis administration.

Board of Education members on Friday warned of possible sanctions for districts that don’t fall in line with the masking policies.

“If we see a school district who is either unwilling or unable to comply with the law, then we the state board, we have certain authority of either withholding state funds or other tools in our toolbox,” Gibson said Friday.

The voucher rule backed by the Board of Education aims to protect students from “COVID-19 harassment,” a new term coined by state officials to give parents another outlet to avoid mask rules.

It creates a path for parents to transfer their children to a private school or even another school district under the “Hope Scholarship” voucher program — a type of award that’s typically reserved for students who are victims of violence or bullying at their school.

The state defined Covid-19 harassment as wide range of threatening or discriminatory actions that a student could suffer from due to school Covid-19 protocols, including masking, isolating non-masked students, and testing requirements.

Some parents who phoned in to Friday’s board meeting called this language “irresponsible” and “reckless,” while others said the rule fell short of protecting the freedom of students to attend school without masks. One caller asked the board to prove that the Delta variant “even exists.” A few speakers asked if they could score vouchers to send their kids to schools that do require masks for students.

As the DeSantis administration was taking action on masks, parents filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the Republican governor. The lawsuit claims DeSantis “has placed an illegal barrier for students with disabilities which is preventing our state’s most vulnerable students from returning to public schools.”

“Parents are put into an impossible situation of having to choose between the health and life of their child and returning the school,” the lawsuit states.

Schools across Florida are set to welcome students back starting as soon as next week.

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