Families protesting potential mask mandates in Florida. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images
Protecting Floridians from COVID vaccine mandates from businesses was a major talking point for Gov. Ron DeSantis when he announced his interest Thursday in a special session.
But how school districts can or can’t implement COVID mask mandates and firing employees for not getting COVID vaccines, is another major element in the governor’s priorities for a special session.
DeSantis also wants to bolster protection granted by a new law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which has been a centerpiece in an ongoing debate and in legal battles over who has authority over school mandates in the pandemic — the executive branch, local school boards or parents.
Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar, of the statewide teacher union, says that COVID vaccine mandates for school staff are not an issue right now among Florida school districts.
“Right now, there’s no district in Florida that has any (COVID) vaccine mandate in place, and I’m not expecting any district, at this point, to put a vaccine mandate in place for teachers, staff or students,” he told the Phoenix.
“I’m not sure why this is a priority, other than for political reasons. And unfortunately I think we’ve seen, and I think most people can agree, that we’ve seen COVID become a very political issue rather than a health issue…I would much rather see our Legislature focus on making sure we have enough teachers and staff in our schools, because we don’t right now,” Spar said.
A Thursday handout from the governor’s office outlines DeSantis’ intent to provide “greater protection to parents of school-aged children” through the Parents’ Bill of Rights.
“Currently, the Parents’ Bill of Rights protects parents’ freedom to manage the healthcare decisions of their children,” the handout says. “However, several school districts continue to violate state law. Additional protections are needed to hold violative districts accountable.”
The Parents’ Bill of Rights reads, in part:
“The state… may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”
But school districts who are imposing mask mandates have cited the second half of the new law, saying that their mandates do “achieve a compelling state interest” of mitigating COVID transmission among students.
At issue is whether DeSantis could try to enhance the Parents’ Bill of Rights law to make sure parents have even more authority, or strip or water down the second half of that new law.
State education officials have already docked pay from some local schools boards, and others face financial penalties because of their strict mask mandates, meant to protect children. However, some districts have softened their mask policies recently.
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