Unencumbered by state expectations on masks, FL private schools have varied approaches to policies

Whether it’s a religious institution or a special education facility, Florida private schools can tailor mask policies to their students and the current COVID situation

By: - August 31, 2021 7:00 am
Catholic school

Students can get scholarships, or vouchers, for Catholic schools in Florida. Credit: Creative Commons

Tina Meadows, the director of a private school called Grace Success Academy in Miami-Dade County, has had her students and staff under a mask mandate since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, back in March of 2020.

“We follow the CDC guidelines, pretty much,” Meadows told the Phoenix. There are about 60 students enrolled in the Christian private school. “We keep our place clean, and we keep our kids masked.”

In contrast, Rainbow Tree Christian School located in Pasco County in the Tampa Bay area does not have a mask policy in place.

“We leave that decision with the parent,” Marilyn Tiglao, director of the Christian private school, told the Phoenix. The school serves about 70 students, she said.

While the Florida public school sector continues its battle over whether school districts have the right to mandate masks among students to combat COVID-19 — and that means lawsuits, threats of punishing school boards and other controversies — private schools are largely left to decide on their own what’s best for their kids. And the methodology regarding mask mandates vary among private schools.

In Northeast Florida, a private school called Little Star Center located in Jacksonville does not have a mask policy in place.

Foeke Rienks, administrative director for the center, told the Phoenix it would be “near impossible” to expect these students to wear a mask, because they are all on the autism spectrum.

The school serves 12 students, with one consistently wearing a mask, Rienks told the Phoenix. However, the Little Star Center’s staff are required to wear masks, he said.

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which oversees Catholic schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, recently decided to implement a mask mandate for all schools due to the rising COVID cases.

According to a letter sent to parents Friday, Christopher Pastura, who serves as the superintendent of these Catholic schools, notified parents that there would be a mask mandate in schools for students in 4th through 12 grades.

“This is a temporary measure. We think it’s common sense,” he told the Phoenix. “Once the numbers go down, then I think we can go back to being less restrictive.”

The policies have changed over the course of the recent surge of COVID-19 in Florida for the schools within the Diocese of St. Petersburg, going from mask optional, to mask recommended, to mask mandatory but allowing for parental opt out to mask mandatory only allowing medical opt outs.

“I think it’s incredibly important that we not just think about our son or daughter. That we think about all of the other children and adults in the building and their families,” Pastura said. “When we’re thinking about one another and not just ourselves – I can’t think of something that’s more Catholic and more American.”

He said that the mask mandate conversation, which has been in a legal battle among Florida’s public schools, said that COVID is a “medical public health problem, not a political one.”

“Every time that people turn this political and turn this into all sorts of needless angst — I think all we’re doing is disrupting the educational process and getting teachers and administrators away from job one, which is educating the kids,” Pastura said.

But the political debate has bled into the private school sector, because the Florida Board of Education has permitted public school students the opportunity to transfer to private schools or another school due to what they call “COVID-19 harassment.”

In early August, the Florida Department of Education implemented an emergency rule to expand the so-called Hope scholarship to help students leave their current public schools after facing COVID harassment. The context largely surrounds mask policies, since public school districts have considered imposing strict mask mandates as COVID cases have surged in Florida.

The Hope scholarship is paid for by public dollars and is intended to help students who have been victims of bullying, harassment, hazing or other cruel treatment escape their current learning environment and allow them to transfer to either a different public school or a private one.

But on Aug. 6, the Florida Board of Education extended the Hope scholarship to include “COVID harassment” which the rule defines 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…”

Step Up for Students, the organization overseeing Florida’s scholarships, told the Phoenix that there have been 126 applications for the Hope scholarship regarding COVID harassment since the emergency rule was adopted.

The Phoenix previously spoke to Melissa Siplin, principal of a private school in Tallahassee called Anchor Academy, who said that the Board of Education’s move could take scholarship opportunities away from kids who have experienced traumatic bullying.

“It’s for those children who are experiencing trauma from bullying. And that’s very different from not being able to express your right to wear a mask or not wear a mask,” Siplin told the Phoenix.

And Pastura with the Diocese of St. Petersburg said he wants students coming to Catholic schools for the “right reasons.”

“If people are coming to our schools, I want them to come because of the excellent academics, the joy of learning, the love of Jesus Christ,” Pastura said. “I don’t want somebody to come because they’re fleeing a mask policy in school. I don’t think that’s a good reason to decide one’s education.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.

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