Florida is one of — if not the — epicenters of politically motivated coronavirus acquiescence in the nation. Under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state has proudly marketed its anti-vaccination, anti-masking priorities, even as infection rates skyrocket to heights unseen since the earliest days of the pandemic. DeSantis has stubbornly refused to institute the minimal policies scientifically shown to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including its latest, most aggressive Delta variant, conspicuously barring communities from instituting their own local mask mandates, and refusing to consider statewide lockdowns that could help slow the infection rates.
On Friday, Florida's open arm welcome for the surging pandemic opened a bit wider, with a new emergency ruling from the state Department of Education that will allow children to transfer out of pubic schools to private institutions if their family opposes the district's COVID-19 policies, including mask mandates. The newly approved policy — a DeSantis priority — will allow students to apply for the state's Hope Scholarship vouchers to cover private school costs if they believe their current "school district’s COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a health or educational danger to their child."
Using state funds to enable students to skirt mask mandates in the midst of a pandemic is bad enough, but consider the original purpose of the Hope Scholarship, as described on the Florida Department of Education website (emphasis theirs):
Beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, a student enrolled in a Florida public school in kindergarten through grade 12 who has been subjected to an incident of battery; harassment; hazing; bullying; kidnapping; physical attack; robbery; sexual offenses, harassment, assault, or battery; threat or intimidation; or fighting at school the opportunity to transfer to another public school with capacity or enroll in an approved private school under the Hope Scholarship
These new guidelines, then, overtly place wearing a mask during a public health crisis on the same level of transferable severity with instances of physical attack, bullying, and sexual offenses — an equivalency Education Board Vice Chair Ben Gibson enthusiastically backed.
'The rule is narrowly tailored, and it aligns with the statute creating the Hope scholarship," he told the Miami Herald. "The board has the absolute authority to define harassment further, which we’ve done."
The new guideline defines COVID-related harassment as "any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct an individual student suffers in relation to, or as a result of, school districts protocols for COVID-19, including masking requirement, the separation or isolation of students, or COVID-19 testing requirements."
Last month the Broward County School Board voted unanimously to institute a district-wide mandatory mask policy. Several days later, DeSantis issued an executive order not only barring districts from being able to mandate facial coverings, but granting the Department of Education the authority to withhold state funds to districts that violate his rule.