Governor’s Ban on Mask Mandates Endangers the Health, Lives of Florida Public School Children and Families
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 9, 2021
Contact: Ashley Levett
(334) 296-0084 / firstname.lastname@example.org
FLORIDA – In his ongoing campaign to undermine both Florida’s public schools and public health, Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on June 30 prohibiting public schools from requiring masks to stop the rapid resurgence of COVID-19 in the state while threatening to withhold state funding from public school districts that defy the order. Governor DeSantis’ pronouncement came as the virus, particularly the highly contagious Delta variant, is sickening an increasing number of children and surging across the state.
Under the guise of implementing the Governor’s order and protecting students from harassment related to COVID-19 safety measures, the Florida Department of Education approved an emergency rule last Friday expanding the use of Hope Scholarship vouchers to additional families who want their children to attend private schools.
The Governor’s order and the new voucher rule were condemned by public school and civil rights advocates, including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Education Law Center (ELC). Both organizations work to secure adequate public school funding and to protect students’ civil rights, and oppose the diversion of public funds to private education through their Public Funds Public Schools campaign.
Other groups are suing to block the Governor’s order, including Disability Independence Group, a Florida nonprofit law firm that filed suit Friday in federal court on behalf of children with disabilities whose rights and safety are put at risk.
The anti-mask order and accompanying FLDOE rule are just some of the latest, and most dangerous, strategies employed by the DeSantis Administration to push children into private schools using taxpayer-funded vouchers. Florida already spends over one billion dollars per year on vouchers, more than any other state in the nation. Its elaborate voucher scheme funnels these public dollars to unaccountable private schools that are permitted to discriminate against students and families based on characteristics such as religion, sexual orientation, disability, and fluency in English.
As funding for vouchers has exploded in recent years, the State’s underfunding of public schools has become severe. Florida ranks in the bottom handful of states on overall public education funding, spending over $4,000 less per pupil annually than the national average. The State also sends more funds to wealthy schools than those serving low-income students and communities. In the decade after the 2008 recession, rather than restore lost public education funding, Florida decreased its public school funding effort by a whopping thirty percent.
According to the most recent available data, twelve percent of Florida students attend private schools, well above the national average. But Governor DeSantis’ executive order, and its threat to withdraw state support from those who defy it, appears to apply only to public schools that are already struggling with underfunding. Meanwhile, thousands of private schools are excluded from the overreaching order and are therefore free to follow CDC guidelines without the threat of sanctions even if they receive taxpayer dollars through vouchers.
Florida’s private schools disproportionately serve white students, who make up 49% of the State’s private school population but only 39% of the total Florida student count. At the same time, rampant discrimination in voucher programs—which can bar or expel students based on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, English fluency, or academic proficiency and exclude students whose families cannot afford the full cost of tuition—means the most vulnerable students will continue to be educated mainly in public schools that are barred by the executive order from implementing the key safety measure of mask mandates.
“The executive order barring masks mandates in public schools leaves their students—who are more likely to be members of vulnerable groups—susceptible to severe illness and death from the coronavirus, while their private school counterparts face no such ban on measures their schools may take to protect their wellbeing,” said Bacardi Jackson, SPLC Florida Managing Attorney. “It is disgraceful to politicize children’s health in this way.”
“The ban on mask mandates in public schools is beyond the pale. The Governor’s order directly jeopardizes the health, safety and lives of its most vulnerable children, who are disproportionately educated in public schools,” said ELC Executive Director David Sciarra. “The Governor must immediately rescind the executive order and allow school districts to impose the mask mandates that they consider absolutely essential to protecting their students, without threat of retribution by the State.”