'Beyond outrageous': DeSantis’ ignites backlash after surprise call for special session on vaccines mandates

A sudden announcement Thursday from Gov. Ron DeSantis to call a special session to impose restrictions on COVID vaccine mandates pushed by President Joe Biden has blindsided much of Florida's political world.

It comes at a time when lawmakers are in legislative committee meetings leading up to the regular session just months away. That session starts Jan. 11. And Florida has already had a special session to handle details of a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Lawmakers also face a major task — mapping out new legislative and Congressional districts.

Meanwhile, the political campaigns are already in motion, with DeSantis in reelection mode.

And the COVID pandemic continues.

Christina Pushaw, a communications staffer for DeSantis, tweeted that: “Florida is fighting back against unjust and unscientific mandates."

Following the governor's announcement, Democratic lawmakers and other figures weighed in on DeSantis' call for the special session.

“This was a surprise to all of us," Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who represents part of Hillsborough County, said during a Zoom call with state House Democratic caucus. She was joined by Central Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani and Rep. Ramon Alexander who represents Gadsden County and part of Leon. which encompasses the state capital.

Driskell called the potential special session a “distraction" and said that she saw it as DeSantis taking a “direct swipe at the Biden administration."

President Biden has ordered his administration to prepare regulations requiring employees to become vaccinated or else face weekly testing, intending to curb transmission of the coronavirus.

“This move for special session is the governor directly putting the government in the way of our small businesses and their ability to earn a living, to put food on the table. And frankly it's just the wrong move and the wrong message for Florida," Driskell said during the Zoom call.

Here are some other reactions around Florida:

/U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist, a former Florida Republican governor who is running for the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, tweeted:

“DeSantis is wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on legal fights to tout his right-wing credentials for his presidential bid. And now he's going to waste more money on a 'Soft on Covid' anti-business special session. Everyone sees right through you Ron."

/Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, an elected Cabinet who is campaigning for the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial race, released a written statement:

“This is a purely self-serving political ploy by the governor, once again pulling out all the stops to appease – and encourage – extremist positions that fly in the face of science and public health instead of protecting our children, our communities, and our economy. It provides a dangerous platform for extremists who have been threatening those trying to do right to keep their communities safe, and creates a slippery slope by undermining public health policies supported by sound science and the medical community by instead promoting conspiracy theorists and risky unproven treatments.

/State Sen. Annette Taddeo, of South Florida, who recently got into the Democratic primary for governor, said in a written statement: “This is wildly out of step with the majority of Floridians and completely reckless. It speaks to the overreaches this governor will do to take control over private enterprise and health care decisions."

/Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the nonprofit Progress Florida, also weighed in through a written statement:

“While Florida's small businesses and local governments are doing all they can to keep people safe and allow our economy to rebound, our state's governor seems hellbent on continuing this pandemic for as long as possible no matter how many people he gets sick in the process. Today's announcement is another example by Governor Ron DeSantis of spreading medical disinformation and undermining public health in order to play to the far-right and anti-vax fringe."

/State Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat who represents part of Broward and Palm Beach counties, tweeted:

“This is beyond outrageous. When Covid first hit we asked for a special session to address among other things the horrible unemployment assistance system. When Floridians needed help, they said no. Now, for political expediency, we have a special session. Shows you their values."

/State Rep. Angie Nixon, a Democrat who represents part of Duval County, commented in a written statement:

“From businesses and schools, to our health care and front line workers, everyone except Florida's failed governor is shouldering the responsibility of keeping us free from sickness and economic disaster…He wants to light Florida's tax dollars on fire with this special session in order to put public health and livelihoods at risk in exchange for his own political ambitions."

/State Rep. Michael Grieco, a Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade County, tweets:

“Florida is an at-will work state. Your bosses currently can fire/hire you based upon how they feel about the color of your shoes if they want to…but apparently vaccination status doesn't fit the cozy corporate freedom model."

The Republican Party of Florida retweeted a sign seen at DeSantis's Thursday press conference, a parody of the Gadsden Flag with the silhouette of an alligator, reading “DONT TREAD ON FLORIDA."

Rep. Jason Fischer, a Republican who represents part of Duval County, retweeted the same picture adding that: “@GovRonDeSantis is a fighter and a champion of the people!"

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

FL allows 16-year-olds to withdraw from school with parent permission but most other states don’t

In the state of Pennsylvania, students are required to attend school until age 18.

That's the case for South Dakota too. And California. And Kansas.

In fact, 24 states and Washington, D.C., require students to attend school until the age of 18. And a handful more set that age to at least 17, according to data from the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based organization that tracks education policies throughout the nation.

But in Florida, students as young as 16 can decide to withdraw from school if they have parent permission. Florida is one of about 17 states — roughly a third of the states in the country — that still allow students who are just-barely driving to make substantial decisions about their education, impacting their careers and even their lives.

For the 2022 legislative session, two Florida House members want to change that.

HB 125 is co-sponsored by Rep. Kevin Chambliss, who represents part of Miami-Dade County in South Florida, and Rep. Susan Valdés, who represents part of Hillsborough in the Tampa Bay area. Both are Democrats.

Currently, Florida law says that a student age 16 or older is required to attend school until a “formal declaration of intent is filed with the district school board. The declaration must acknowledge that terminating school enrollment is likely to reduce the student's earning potential and must be signed by the student and the student's parent."

But HB 125 would only allow 18-year-olds to make such a decision, and would no longer require the parent to sign off on it.

For Valdés, the bill is in part an effort to bolster the Florida workforce, because a portion of the future workforce is dropping out before students can earn a high school diploma.

“When we're constantly hearing 'we can't find the workforce'… Well, here it is. You have a bunch of your workforce leaving the institution, that's helping to prepare that workforce, at the age of 16," Valdés told the Phoenix.

Valdés continued:

“So if I bump it up to 18…at least we'll have that child be in school working towards their career goals and be able to be a productive citizen."

Valdés is concerned about student prospects if kids do not complete a high school diploma that teens usually earn at the end of 12th grade. She spoke about scenarios such as a 16 or 17-year-old withdrawing from school to help out with family matters.

“If you have a predicament… where a child — and many are like that in my community – they feel like they have to go help their parents, they have to go work. Or they are a sibling that takes care of their little siblings while their parents go out to work," Valdés said. “All of those scenarios are very valid and very real. I see those scenarios every day. And what I constantly remind my kiddos that fall into that category is: 'just hang in there. It's tough, I know. And if you don't wind up getting a high school diploma, it's tougher when you really become an adult.'"

She said that students can't get a “good job" without a high school diploma.

“So if you drop out, you go work where? Taco Bell? McDonald's? Then when you turn 18, where's your high school diploma?" she told the Phoenix.

Valdés also noted that the effect of the bill, should it be approved by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would also work to reduce what's called the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I'm seeing a lot of children, when they do drop out, they go into the other system," Valdés said. “The prison system."

The American Civil Liberties Union described this phenomenon as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems."

“This (HB 125) is just ensuring that students have every opportunity to be successful," Valdés said.

The Phoenix reached out to Rep. Chambliss and is awaiting a response.

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar, of the statewide teacher union, supports increasing the compulsory school age to 18.

“It's a good thing. We have antiquated rules around kids being in school, and I think it's time that we really look at doing everything we can to keep kids learning and in school," Spar told the Phoenix. “It's antiquated in the sense that times have changed. You need to have more skill sets, you need to have more training to be able to be a successful contributor to our democratic society."

Spar says that students often drop out early because they doubt their success in the Florida school system.

“I think when kids do consider to drop out, they feel like they cannot be successful in school and they do not like that feeling. And so we've got to make sure, as a school system, we are doing everything we can to keep kids engaged and excited about learning," he told the Phoenix.

“I think we should focus on the idea that kids should stay in school, not just from an economic standpoint, but also from a moral obligation to our children, to our future, to our communities, in the sense that life-long learning is truly a human characteristic."

States vary greatly in what age range qualifies for compulsory school age.

Florida's required schooling starts at age six, so 5-year-olds don't have to start school yet, though many children do attend kindergarten.

Spar told the Phoenix that: “I wish we would make kindergarten compulsory in the state of Florida, and maybe even pre-kindergarten."

As for the upper limit, when students can decide to withdraw from school, the Education Commission of the State reports:

/17 states require students to attend school until 16;

/8 states, age 17;

/24 states, plus Washington D.C. schools, age 18;

/Texas, at 19.

Below is a spreadsheet of the range in compulsory school ages from different states, based on 2020 data from the Education Commission of the States.

Lower requirement Upper requirement
Texas 6 19
Arkansas 5 18
California 6 18
Connecticut 5 18
Washington D.C. 5 18
Hawaii 5 18
Indiana 7 18
Kansas 7 18
Louisiana 7 18
Maryland 5 18
Michigan 6 18
Nebraska 6 18
Nevada 7 18
New Hampshire 6 18
New Mexico 5 18
Ohio 6 18
Oklahoma 5 18
Oregon 6 18
Pennsylvania 6 18
Rhode Island 5 18
South Dakota 5 18
Tennessee 6 18
Utah 6 18
Virginia 5 18
Washington 8 18
Wisconsin 6 18
Alabama 6 17
Colorado 6 17
Illinois 6 17
Maine 6 17
Minnesota 7 17
Mississippi 6 17
Missouri 7 17
South Carolina 5 17
Alaska 7 16
Arizona 6 16
Delaware 5 16
Florida 6 16
Georgia 6 16
Idaho 7 16
Iowa 6 16
Kentucky 6 16
Massachusetts 6 16
Montana 7 16
New Jersey 6 16
New York 6 16
North Carolina 7 16
North Dakota 7 16
Vermont 6 16
West Virginia* 6 16
Wyoming 7 16

*The Phoenix found it difficult to verify West Virginia's compulsory school age as 16 or 17.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Ron DeSantis' campus 'intellectual freedom' survey has already spawned a lawsuit

Months ago, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved a controversial law that would require Florida's colleges and universities to conduct a survey intended to gauge whether institutions of higher education promote “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity."
At the time, critics questioned what those surveys will ask, how intellectual diversity will be measured, and what will happen with the results.

Three months later, very few of those concerns have been answered or addressed and there's also a lawsuit.

In August, the United Faculty of Florida (UFF) joined a federal lawsuit against state education officials, arguing that aspects of the law threaten the right to free speech. The federal lawsuit was filed at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida by faculty members and students of Florida's college and university systems.

“Any law that relies on the good will of legislators and politicians over the protections of the Constitution is not a good law," said Andrew Gothard, the UFF president. “And that is why we are challenging HB 233 (now the law) in court and that is why we do not believe that these viewpoint diversity surveys have any place in higher education in this state."

Earlier this week, Marshall Criser III, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, updated lawmakers about the survey during a committee meeting leading up to the 2022 legislative session. However, Criser didn't provide many concrete details.

He did say that the survey will need to be designed, and it would be conducted in the spring of 2022. Results would be assessed over the summer to meet a deadline to publish the survey's findings by Sept. 1, 2022, as outlined in the law.

Criser said that the Institute of Politics at Florida State University is involved in the creation of the survey, but it's not yet clear to what extent.

The Phoenix reached out to the Board of Governors for more information about the institute's involvement, and is awaiting a response. The Phoenix also reached out to the Institute of Politics itself, and was told to speak to the Board of Governors.

“What I would describe is we are working with the political institute (Institute of Politics) at Florida State University. And when I say 'working with' – I have individuals on my staff who are very good at data and data analysis. They have people who are incredibly talented and do survey work," Criser told lawmakers.

The Institute of Politics was created by the Florida legislature in 2020, with certain goals such as becoming “a national and state resource on polling information and survey methodology."

Criser continued: “And so, we are trying to understand what the right questions are and what the right approach is and also getting some professional — I'd say they have some professional guidance to us about size and number of questions and the way you ask questions."

Rep. James Mooney, a Republican who represents Monroe and part of Miami-Dade County, asked Criser to specify the Board of Governor's decision on whether the Board of Governors will create the survey or contract another entity to create it.

“I'd think I'd say, generally, we are not contracting out, but we are working closely with them (Institute of Politics) to help develop this," Criser said.

Meanwhile, UFF President Gothard told the Phoenix on Friday that, “So far, very little has been said about how these, what they call 'viewpoint diversity surveys,' are going to be constructed."

“Sure, this survey could be innocuous if it's designed in the right way," Gothard said, “but there is no guarantee it will be innocuous."

He continued: “Unfortunately, we cannot imagine a scenario where the survey will go well. At its baseline it might be 'acceptable,' but there's really no reality where this survey could do anything useful or productive for the Florida higher education system…The real problem with… the survey is that there are virtually no limitations on the kinds of questions this survey can ask, and then what can be done with the results of that survey afterword."

The law says that the survey must be objective, nonpartisan, and statistically valid. The law does not require the survey to be anonymous.

It also must consider “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented and members of the college community, including students, faculty, and staff, feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom."

The new law also allows students to film lectures without permission of the professors, and forbids institutions from “shielding" students from opinions and ideas that they may find “uncomfortable, unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive."

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

An escalating legal war could be on the horizon for Florida school boards

The school mask mandate controversy could involve more legal battles, according to school district officials, with Broward and Alachua discussing their legal options after the Florida Department of Education docked pay for the two local boards because they had implemented strict mask mandates.

This article was originally published at Florida Phoenix

The move by the DeSantis administration and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran — who believe that parents of schoolchildren, not school boards, should make decisions on mask-wearing — came after a judge ruled verbally Friday that local boards can indeed implement mask mandates.

“I'm very troubled by the state's action," Alachua County School District Supt. Carlee Simon said in a written statement on Tuesday. “Our School Board members made a courageous decision to protect the health and lives of students, staff and the people of this community, and a court has already ruled they had the legal right to do so. They deserve praise, not penalties."

She noted that the Alachua school district is looking into legal action.

“We believe this is a necessary step to ensure that Florida's districts have the right to act in the best interests of those they serve."

The statement did not provide further details on the legal front.

Alachua communication staffer Jackie Johnson said that Alachua and Broward, as well as the Orange County School District, are working with attorneys on the matter and awaiting a written court order from Circuit Court Judge John Cooper before pursuing any legal moves.

“We'll have more information on the specific arguments when there is a formal ruling, which should be in the next couple of days," Johnson told the Phoenix.

The Broward County School District also released a written statement Tuesday, saying that the board believes its mask policies are complying with state law and rules.

“We continue to receive legal advisement that we are in compliance to the rules as well as to the order," interim Supt. Vickie Cartwright said during a special school board meeting Tuesday morning. The comments were from a video from the Tuesday board meeting.

Alachua and Broward were the first two districts to implement strict mask mandate policies in response to the rising COVID-19 cases in Florida. Ten other school districts have since followed suit and implemented strict mask mandates. These districts could see similar punitive measures, but it's not clear yet.

Other than Alachua and Broward, the other school districts that have defied the DeSantis administration's mask policies are: Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Sarasota, Leon, Duval, Indian River, Orange, Brevard and Lee.

The Department of Education has been sending letters to those or at least some districts that could lead to punitive actions, such as docking pay for local boards.

A press release from the Florida Democratic Party responded to the Department “illegally" withholding the salaries of school board members.

“This announcement is shocking and outrageous," chairman Manny Diaz said in the written statement. “Just last Friday, a Leon County Judge determined that Governor DeSantis exceeded his authority when he signed an executive order blocking local school boards from enacting mask protocols.

“Yet Commissioner Corcoran has moved forward with these heavy-handed tactics to further the Governor's unconstitutional efforts to prevent school boards from enacting the health protocols they deem necessary to protect the lives of their students and employees."

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Some Florida families are already looking to leave their current public schools due to 'COVID Harassment'

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.

This article was originally published at Florida Phoenix

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.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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