Some families in Alachua County's public school district are already pursuing taxpayer-funded scholarships to transfer their kids to private schools because of “COVID harassment." They could also transfer their children to public schools within the same district or to another district if there's room.
That's allowed under a new rule that expands who can apply for the so-called Hope Scholarship.
The district so far has received six applications for the scholarship, according to Jackie Johnson, spokeswoman for the Alachua school district.
That Hope Scholarship was intended to help students who have experienced bullying, harassment, assault, or were hurt in other ways. The language has now extended to COVID harassment, which would cover mask wearing at public schools.
“They're all for COVID harassment," Johnson told the Phoenix about the applications. She noted that there may be other applications on the way. About 28,000 are enrolled in the Alachua district.
The district based in Gainesville is one of two school districts mandating masks at the start of the school year, continuing a heated debate on whether school districts should require masks for students as COVID cases surge in Florida or if those decisions should be left up to a child's parent.
The district will continue with its current mask policy, which requires students and staff to wear a mask for the first two weeks of school, at least, said Johnson. She also said that the district sent an email to Alachua families notifying them of the Hope Scholarship. Students can also opt out of the mask mandate if they have a medical exemption.
According to Johnson, there are no further details about the nature of “COVID harassment" the families experienced that led them to apply for the Hope scholarship. Families merely have to check the “harassment" box and write “COVID-19" next to it on the Hope Scholarship notification form, according to the district's website.
Last week, the Florida Board of Education approved a rule change on who can qualify for a Hope scholarship, a way for students who have been bullied to leave their school and attend a private school or a different public school funded by taxpayer dollars.
But the Board of Education voted to extend those scholarships to those experiencing “COVID harassment," described in the rule 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 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, opportunities or benefits."
The Phoenix reached out to Step Up for Students, the organization overseeing Florida's scholarships, to get a sense of whether there's been increased interest statewide in the Hope scholarship following the rule change. So far, the organization has not responded.
Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier issued an executive order to protect a parent's right to “direct the upbringing, education, health care or mental health" of their student. The executive order prohibits school districts from infringing on that right, including mask mandates, through policies and law. Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has threatened the salaries of school board members and superintendents that mandate masks for students.
In a letter to Corcoran, Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon and School Board Chair Leanetta McNealy, said that “Due to the highly-contagious nature of this virus, there is a high risk that more students and staff will have to be sent home due to illness or exposure. Like you (Corcoran), we are obligated to provide a safe and secure public education to all students. Universally masking is the most effective strategy we currently have, besides vaccination, to meet this obligation."
The Broward County school district in South Florida also has a mask mandate in place, despite state rules and laws forbidding them from doing so.
Earlier this week, the school board for Broward County voted to mandate masks for students when their school year starts next week, and to potentially seek a legal challenge to state rules and policies that prohibit mask mandates.
Thursday, a spokesperson said that Broward plans to file a rule challenge and/or a motion for injunctive relief within the next two weeks. It was not certain if Broward has filed a lawsuit and it was not clear which rule could be challenged, such as the Department of Education or the Department of Health rules.
In a press conference following the Tuesday meeting, Broward County school board chair Dr. Rosalind Osgood said that the board “instructed" their legal council to challenge state policies that prohibit mask mandates, according to a video posted to the Broward County school district's website.
The Phoenix reached out to the school district for an update on the progress of the litigation, and is awaiting a response.
One school district that was previously rebelling against the state's ban on mask mandates in schools has since backed down.
Mere hours before Leon County students would start their first day of school, Superintendent Rocky Hanna and the school board members made a change to their mask policy on Tuesday.
Previously, the district was going to require masks for everyone in kindergarten through eighth grade allowing only an opt-out for a medical reason. But later, the school board voted to allow an opt-out that didn't need a medical reason.
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