Sen. Danny Burgess at Senate committee meeting. Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Danielle J. Brown
New legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Thursday is supposed to give parents more discretion over their school-aged children during the COVID-19 pandemic by forbidding school boards from requiring COVID vaccines or masks for students.
The language in the bill has been touted as an expansion of a new law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights.
But, oddly enough, the new law does not actually fall under the statute called the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” The new language dealing with schools is in a different part of Florida law.
Despite this, Gov. Ron DeSantis and other supporters have promoted the legislation as an expansion.
In fact, the Florida Department of Education shared a Thursday press release from the governor’s office announcing the new legislation in an email with the subject line of “Governor DeSantis Signs Legislation to Protect Parents’ Rights.”
But considering that the legislation does not alter the Parents’ Bill of Rights in Florida Statute, does it actually have more “teeth?”
State Sen. Danny Burgess, one of the sponsors of the legislation, says that “the provisions of the bill have the same effect, regardless of where in our statutes they are located,” according to an email to the Phoenix.
Burgess is a Republican who represents parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco counties.
“The bill I filed makes it clear that parents and guardians have the sole discretion regarding whether their child wears a mask in school, or receives a COVID-19 vaccine…As Governor DeSantis said, these provisions certainly ‘add teeth,’ by affirming the rights of Florida parents,” Burgess said in the email.
Burgess was referencing DeSantis’ remarks earlier:
“I guarantee you, with having that type of teeth in the Parents’ Bill of Rights, you’re going to have everyone get in line,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Zephyrhills on Nov. 8.
The new law also allows parents to sue a school district if a student is required to wear a mask or receive a COVID vaccine.
The provisions forbidding schools from requiring masks and COVID vaccines for students expires June 1, 2023. Burgess said in the email this was another reason the language affecting parents’ rights was not actually in the Parents’ Bill of Rights statute.
“I think it was a good decision to consolidate the specific provisions related to COVID-19 into this one specific section and assign a sunset date of 2023,” he said in the email. “By that time, hopefully COVID-19 will be pretty far behind us. If not, we can certainly reevaluate as we need to. The strong protections under the Parent’s Bill of Rights do not sunset.”
DeSantis announced the special session amid a major conflict over whether school boards, state education officials or parents should decide if students wear masks in school.
The Florida Constitution gives school boards authority to operate schools, and several districts opted for strict mask mandates when COVID cases were spiking 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, were signed into law Thursday by DeSantis.
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