Parents, not school boards, would decide on students wearing masks, even if pandemic worsens

By: - November 17, 2021 7:36 pm

Young girls wearing protective masks running on sidewalk. Getty Images.

Republican lawmakers in both the Florida House and Senate have determined that parents should have ultimate say over whether their children can wear masks at public schools — even if a more threatening variant of COVID-19 were to crop up in Florida.

In addition, the legislation approved by the Legislature would ban school districts from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, the districts don’t do that anyway.

“We’re putting it in the hands of the parents to be able to make the decision that’s best for their child,” said Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, the sponsor of bill. He is a Republican who represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

With both chambers approving the legislation, the next step is Gov. Ron DeSantis, who expects to sign the bill into law.

The language dealing with school boards is a part of a larger piece of legislation, which passed Wednesday on party lines.

Some Democrats were concerned that the bill will restrict school boards’ ability to implement mitigation strategies should COVID cases spike again.

“Are we not concerned that, if a new variant…happens to make its way to Florida, and numbers start to increase, are we not as concerned that we have put laws in place that will probably tie our hands that we cannot turn back?” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat who represents part of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Burgess said that the bill language on schools is time-limited, set to expire June 1, 2023.

“In two years, it’s impossible to know where we’ll be. It’s impossible to predict what we’re going to do,” Burgess said. “We may choose to renew it (the legislation), depending on the world and the way it is then, but it’s impossible to predict that now.”

Sen. Lori Berman, a Democrat who represents part of Palm Beach County, said that the pandemic is not over and “we could have a flare-up at any time.”

“We’re telling our school districts they can’t have masks — which they don’t have masks right now because…they’re following the science,” she said. “They’re doing the right thing. But we’re saying even if the science changes, and COVID comes up, you’re not allowed to require masks.”

Sen. Jones questioned why the COVID vaccine is targeted in this legislation rather than other vaccine requirements needed for schools.

“There’s a lot of hesitancy for a number of reasons,” Burgess responded. “So what we’re doing in this window of time, in this short window of time, is understanding and defending that personal choice and freedom for parents to be able to make those decisions for their children.”

For several months, a handful of districts were battling with state education officials over whether school boards or parents will decide if students wear a mask at school.

The Florida Constitution gives school boards authority to operate schools, and several districts opted for strict mask mandates when COVID cases were spiked earlier in the 2021-22 school year.

But the DeSantis administration says that parents have the right to direct the health care of their students, not school districts, and that includes masks. The conflict has resulted in several legal challenges and may lead to further clashes between the state and the federal government.

But as COVID cases have gone down, along with increased pressure from state officials, most districts have dropped their strict mask mandates in favor of letting parents decide. By Nov. 20, all school districts will be in compliance.

Overall, all four pieces of legislation this week, during the special session, have been sent to the governor for consideration.

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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.