Florida approves tuition vouchers for parents who think mask mandates are ‘Covid harassment’

State is becoming national centre of Delta surge, but governor opposes further public-health measures

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 06 August 2021 22:22
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urges Floridians to take Covid vaccine despite leading anti-lockdown efforts
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Parents in Florida who believe public school mask mandates are “Covid-19 harassment” will now be eligible to get state funding to send their children to private schools, the latest measure the state has taken to blunt the effectiveness of proven public health measures even as it becomes the national epicentre of the Delta surge.

The Florida Board of Education on Friday authorised school vouchers for children who have experienced “any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanising verbal, written or physical conduct” that are “substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance”, which apparently includes local decisions about mask mandates and testing requirements.

“We’re not going to hurt kids. We’re not going to pull money that’s going to hurt kids in any way,” board member Ben Gibson said of the decision. “If a parent wants their child to wear a mask at school, they should have that right. If a parent doesn’t want their child to wear a mask at school, they should have that right.”

Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has clashed frequently with local governments, which often want to impose more stringent Covid guidelines than the conservative stalwart. The governor has previously asked his staff to come up with ways to pressure school districts not to impose mask mandates, ABC News reported, and has threatened to withhold money from them if they do so anyway.

Just two Florida school districts are aligned with recently revised CDC guidelines and will require masks when school restarts in coming weeks.

The state is quickly becoming the worst Covid hot spot in the nation. On Friday, more than 12,000 people were hospitalised with Covid, and on Thursday the state had its highest single day count of cases, 22,783, since the pandemic began.

So far the governor has resisted calls from medical experts to impose stricter public health policies.

“In terms of imposing any restrictions, that’s not happening in Florida. It’s harmful. It’s destructive. It does not work,” Mr DeSantis said at a news conference on Friday. “We really believe that individuals know how to best assess their risks. We trust them to be able to make those decisions. We just want to make sure everybody has information.”

On Friday, a group of parents filed a lawsuit against Mr DeSantis and state education authorities  in a Miami federal court, arguing that the efforts to torpedo mask mandates violate disability rights protections because they mean their disabled children can’t attend school safely.

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