TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's Board of Education approved an emergency rule Friday to allow private school vouchers if parents feel their children are being harassed by a school district's COVID-19 safety policies, including requirements to wear masks.
The parents could request the vouchers under provisions normally used to protect children who are being bullied.
"'COVID-19 harassment' means 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," the rule reads.
The meeting was scheduled a week after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the department to come up with ways of having school districts that mandate mask-wearing provide other alternatives for parents, saying they had the legal right to make decisions about their children's health and education.
DeSantis said in his order that the rules could include withholding money from school districts or other actions allowed under Florida law.
During a news conference Friday in Port St. Lucie, DeSantis reiterated his general opposition to restrictions, such as lockdowns, business closures and mask mandates.
"That's not happening in Florida," he said. "It's harmful. It's destructive. It does not work."
Two Florida school districts have decided to follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they restart classes next week because of dramatic rises in coronavirus infections. Florida now leads the country in COVID-19 related hospitalizations.
The Florida Department of Health also released its emergency rule, allowing school districts to adopt mask requirements but allowing parents or legal guardians of students the opportunity to opt-out.
School boards in Duval County, home to Jacksonville, and Alachua County, home to Gainesville, decided this week to require mask-wearing indoors, citing the rise in hospitalizations.
The Duval County School Board is allowing parents to submit paperwork if they want their children not to wear masks. The Alachua County board said it had voted to require masks for the first two weeks of school, a decision that will be reevaluated in two weeks. Students in both districts go back to school next Tuesday.
In South Florida, school districts are still undecided on their mask directives.
Interim Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke said Thursday that the governor's executive order "has really prohibited our district from enforcing a student facial covering requirement."
"After consulting with our office of general counsel and our colleagues around the state, I have no reason to believe, at this time, a legal challenge would be successful, and while I may question the governor's reasoning, there seems to be no question that the governor will do everything within his power to enforce his order," Burke said.
WATCH: Interim Superintendent Mike Burke discusses return to school
That includes withholding state funding "and depriving us of the funds necessary to pay our employees," Burke said.
"So that's a pretty serious threat that we had to take into consideration," he continued.
Instead, students and staff will return to school Tuesday with masks "strongly encouraged."
The Broward County School Board had voted to require masks after hours of contentious debate that included a screaming match from angry anti-mask parents who set fire to masks and held picket signs outside. The board reversed course Monday over fear of losing funding, but the district said Wednesday on Twitter that it was "waiting for guidance" in light of the governor's order.
Last week, @browardschools mandated wearing masks in our schools to protect our students, staff and community. In light of the Governor’s Executive Order, the District is waiting for guidance before deciding a mask mandate for the school year. Learn more https://t.co/u07nlCM2pO. pic.twitter.com/jyYY4VtQFH— Broward Schools (@browardschools) August 4, 2021
Miami-Dade County Public Schools haven't said whether masks will continue to be optional, as they were, or required.