State Board of Ed okays private school transfers for public kids experiencing ‘COVID-19 harassment’

The issue largely surrounds wearing masks — or not — at public schools

By: - August 6, 2021 12:52 pm

Teacher with students, in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

In a growing controversy over masks at schools, the Florida Board of Education approved a new rule Friday to allow public school students to transfer to private schools if their families are against COVID-19 safety measures, including masks.

Effective immediately, families can apply for taxpayer-funded scholarships designed to help students suffering from bullying and other so-called “COVID-19 harassment.”

The scholarships, called Hope, were intended to help students who have experienced bullying, harassment, assault, or were hurt in other ways.

Under the new rule, the criteria for the Hope scholarship has expanded to include mask-related issues that families would consider harassment.

The language in the rule, defined as “COVID-19 harassment,” is described 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 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, opportunities or benefits…”

The state board of education discussed the rule in a telephone conference call, which made it difficult for listeners to know who was talking.

There was only about 15 minutes of public comments.

A Leon County parent called the situation “a moral outrage,” saying that the language in the new rule is irresponsible and reckless.

Vice Chair Ben Gibson said that rule prioritized parental choice.

“With COVID-19, you have school districts across the state who are adopting various protocols. This is a changing situation, it’s a fluid situation,” Gibson said.

“And as they (districts) adopt these COVID-19 protocols, I think it’s important that…if a parent believes that their student is subject to some sort of harassment, and likely that’s going to be based on a parent making a health or education decision for their child — this, again, gives parents that ability to move a child to another school and take advantage of it.”

The mask conversation reignites a Florida Constitutional question about which entity has more authority over Florida’s schools — the state or local school boards.

Back in 2020, state officials were sued by the Florida Education Association on the reopening of Florida schools during the COVID pandemic.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran signed a controversial emergency order on July 6, 2020, which stated that “upon reopening in August, all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” Just like in the recent executive order, state funding was on the line for districts that did not comply.

But the FEA lawsuit claimed that the 2020 emergency order overstepped the local authority of districts to operate schools. The Florida Constitution promises students the right to a “safe, secure” education, and  “the school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”

Eventually, the FEA voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit, and the constitutional quandary was never fully answered: if there is a conflict between local school boards and state officials on how schools should operate during a pandemic, which entity has the ultimate authority?

Clarification: Families who apply for the Hope scholarship could transfer their children to a private school, a public school within the same district or another district if there’s room.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.