How did a Parents’ Bill of Rights turn into a mask mandate controversy in FL schools?

Next week’s special legislative session will focus, in part, on bolstering parents’ rights

By: - November 10, 2021 7:00 am

Republican State Rep. Erin Grall, representing Indian River County and part of St. Lucie County. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

The Parents’ Bill of Rights, sponsored by State Rep. Erin Grall in the 2021 legislative session, was criticized for its vague language and unclear boundaries. But it became a clarion call for parent power as local school boards developed COVID-19 policies impacting students.

Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed the legislation this summer and the Parents’ Bill of Rights, within months, became a major legal reference in court battles. It also became a major talking point for the governor, who has called a special legislative session next week that includes bolstering parents’ rights to direct the education of their children.

But how did the parents’ rights law turn into a mask mandate debacle that pitted the executive branch against local school boards during the pandemic?

“I think the bill language (of the Parents’ Bill of Rights) was very broadly worded in a way that folks weren’t aware of all the consequences, intended or not intended, from the bill,” Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director with the Equality Florida, told the Phoenix. Equality Florida and other LGBTQ advocacy groups raised concerns over the Parents’ Bill of Rights back in the legislative session of 2021 and how it could impact LGBTQ students.

“I think what we’re seeing now is that there are individuals who are trying to stretch the bill (the Parents’ Bill of Rights) beyond its intentions and beyond its language,” Maurer said.

In fact, the parent rights’  law has been controversial for some time, with members of the LGBTQ community and other advocates worrying that harm may come to some kids.

“The bill sponsors repeatedly said that the Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation simply codified existing rights and practices into law, but we are finding now that we are right – that there are a lot of unexpected results,” Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, told the Phoenix.

“We certainly wished that all youth, including LGBTQ youth, came from supportive homes,” Maurer with Equality Florida said. “But of course we know that that’s not always the case.”

Advocates worry that the Parents’ Bill of Rights will lead to LGBTQ students getting “outed,” meaning that their gender or sexuality would be non-consensually exposed. That could bring harm to students whose parents are not supportive.

“LGBTQ youth are coming out at younger and younger ages, and that does often happen at school. We want to make sure that schools are safe places for students where they can be fully supported in who they are,” Maurer said.

But a major shift occurred during the pandemic.

Gov. DeSantis brought new life into the conversation around parents’ rights in July, when the governor invoked the Parents’ Bill of Rights in order to ensure parents that they have the right to make medical decisions for their students.

The conversation largely surrounded masks, as some Florida school districts were considering which COVID policies would be in place as the 2021-22 school year approached.

DeSantis created an executive order to direct that the state health agency and state education officials protect “parents rights” through emergency rules allowing parents to decide whether their child will wear a mask at school, even as the Delta variant of COVID-19 became a bigger concern in the state.

But when some school districts wanted to place strict mask mandates into classrooms, a lawsuit emerged with the new Parents’ Bill of Rights at the forefront of the discussion.

On Aug. 27, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that the governor had actually violated the Parents’ Bill of Rights because it gives government entities authority to override parents’ rights if “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.”

Cooper’s ruling was appealed, and the appellate court sided with DeSantis.

But with the special legislative session looming, it’s not clear how much the Parents’ Bill of Rights will be expanded outside of some COVID protocols.

Will the Parents’ Bill of Rights actually have more teeth? Will parents have more authority than previously offered to them through Florida law? It’s not clear yet.

But as of right now, the Parents’ Bill of Rights includes:

/The right to “direct the education” of their minor child and the right to “direct the upbringing and moral or religious training.”

/The right to inspect instructional materials, including materials regarding sex education, to decide if the material is appropriate for their child.

/The right to object to instructional materials “based on beliefs regarding morality, sex, and religion or the belief that such materials are harmful.”

/The right to access and review all school records relating to his or her minor child.

However, the language in the proposed legislation that will be considered in the special session shows that school districts would not be able to require masks or force students to receive COVID vaccines, leaving those decisions up to parents. Parents also could sue if they find that either of these provisions have been violated.

The proposed legislation also prohibits school districts from quarantining students so long as they are asymptomatic and they have not received a positive COVID-19 test result.

But the legislation proposed does not appear to impact the Florida statute outlining the Parents’ Bill of Rights. That’s because the language in the proposed legislation is in a different section of Florida law — not under the section actually titled Parents’ Bill of Rights.

In addition, the proposed legislation expires June 1, 2023.

For the special session next week, Rep. Grall, an attorney, is the sponsor of the key legislation in the House on mask and vaccine mandates in public schools. The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess, a Republican who represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

The Phoenix reached out to Rep. Grall and Sen. Burgess for clarity on why these provisions have an expiration date and other questions.

Mask policies were not necessarily on the the radar for those supporting, or opposing, the Parents’ Bill of Rights when it was being considered by the Florida Legislature back in March.

However, there may be a time where the zeitgeist no longer discusses the politics of facial coverings or COVID vaccines. Yet the language of the Parents’ Bill of Rights could remain a concern, depending on the circumstances.

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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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