As Florida students prepared to return to schools from winter break, levels of the omicron virus infection rose so rapidly that many parents wondered if new masks might be possible.
But as a Broward County county noticed on twitterSchool districts are prohibited from requiring students to wear face coverings. A new state law prohibits this.
But this law does not apply to private schools – even if they receive government funding.
“For the second term opening, every district in the diocese where we have schools has crossed the ten percent threshold, so masks will be required indoors at every school until we see a lower positivity rate., ” Scott Conway, Parish of St. Augustine, wrote a letter to the families.
The significant difference between public and private schools did not go unnoticed. Some say the governor and legislature, which held a special session in November to voice their opposition to the mask and vaccination mandates, created double standards.
“Help me understand this!” chirp Miami-Dade School Principal Alberto Carvalho. “Students in Florida can use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools that mandate the imposition of student masks, when public schools, the cornerstone of democracy in America, are legally prohibited from doing so.”
The Archdiocese of Miami has required masks at all indoor activities, including classrooms and church services. It has 9,933 students in its schools who receive some type of state-funded scholarship, according to scholarship funding organization Step Up For Students.
Statewide, 35,199 children attend Catholic schools using state-funded scholarships. Thousands more accept receipts to enroll in other private schools.
Despite making strong statements opposing the required masks in schools, Republican lawmakers have drafted legislation specifically to remove private schools in their ordinance. State Senator Danny Burgess, the Pasco County Republican who sponsored the bill, said the goal is to protect families from government interference in their decisions.
“Florida’s strong school options provide opportunities for tens of thousands of students to attend the schools their parents choose,” Burgess said by email. “The law we passed protects the rights of parents in our neighboring public schools who do not want their child to wear a mask and may not have the opportunity or the means to send the child to another school.”
Gina Sarkissian, a spokeswoman for the Speaker’s Office, said the legislature has long recognized the distinction between public and private organizations in setting its rules.
“The government’s role in dictating the actions of a government entity is much broader than our role in dictating the actions of a private organization,” Sarkissian said via text message. “During the special session, this differentiation served as an inspiration for all the policy choices the leadership made.”
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The Florida Department of Education, when enforcing the laws, has both public and private schools in mind, said department spokesman Jared Ochs.
“We encourage all schools, including private ones, to follow the science and benefit from best practices in education,” Ochs said by email. “This includes not requiring children to wear masks, not isolating healthy students, and maintaining in-person learning.”
If a private school does not follow these guidelines, he said, “we work directly with that school” as needed.
This was not the first time that the legislature had adopted a standard that applied to one group of schools and not another. In recent years, for example, it approved laws for teaching Holocaust history and civic education that neither its charter nor private schools were required to follow, despite leaders’ statements that the subjects were of critical importance.
Jacksonville civic activist Susan Artker has repeatedly appealed to lawmakers to end the practice. Artker asserted that if laws were important enough to be enacted, they should apply equally to all schools.
“It looks fishy,” she said. They are setting new rules on schools run by elected councils. It seems that the state should put fewer rules on them, because they are under the control of the people.”
Like Carvalho, Artker used the term “publicly funded schools” to draw a broader circle around all schools that receive some taxpayer support, whether they are district, charter, or voucher private schools. I argued with them Everyone must meet the same state standard, or be given the same flexibility to adopt certain parts.
“If we fund it publicly … we have an interest in making sure our money is well spent,” Artker said.
Representative Patricia Williams, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, did not expect the Republican majority to adopt such a position.
“Politics intervened and politics made the decisions,” Williams said. “They don’t seem to be looking for the best for people.”
She claimed that Republican legislative leaders are following the lead of Governor Ron DeSantis and will not veer.
“I believe all Florida residents need to be healthy, prosperous, and safe. Our school systems have put in place measures, and our governor has removed house rules,” Williams said. “We are not all on the same page.”
Not all private schools behave the same way. Saint Petersburg Parish schools have maintained an optional mask policy, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the state.
Superintendent Chris Pastora said he trusts the parents of his students to make informed decisions, just as they seem to trust the leadership of their chosen schools. No matter which path they choose, Pastora said, teachers share a common goal.
“All of my classmates in public and private schools at the moment, I am 100% confident that they are doing everything they can to keep their students safe,” he said.
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