TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Children in Florida public schools will be allowed to use Hope Scholarships to transfer to a private school or to another public school if they feel they face “harassment” in response to their COVID-related decisions, the Florida Board of Education voted in an emergency meeting Friday.

That includes decisions against wearing a mask.

What You Need To Know

  • State education board offers transfer vouchers to students "harassed" over COVID-related choices

  • Board also says quarantined students who do school work must get credit for days away from school

  • Florida Dept. of Health requires schools to give students option to opt out of mask-wearing mandates

The ruling came as schools throughout the state, including in Tampa Bay and Central Florida, scramble to prepare for a new school year that begins next week. Much of the scrambling comes in response to an emergency order last week from Gov. Ron DeSantis that prohibited school districts from requiring students to wear masks, even as reports continue to show COVID-related cases and hospitalizations surging throughout the state.

The board also passed an emergency rule that allows students who do school work while quarantined at home because of COVID-19 to get credit for days away from school. Normally, officials said, a student must be at school to get credit for attendance.

The actions came amid apparent public confusion about what the emergency meeting aimed to address. Tom Grady, chairman of the state Board of Education, announced at the beginning of the meeting that the board wasn't considering rules regarding mask mandates or the wearing of masks in schools. 

"The Department of Health has worked on such a rule," he said.

Officials later referred to a new Florida Department of Health rule that requires school districts to give students the option to opt out of mask-wearing mandates. Some Florida school districts have mandated mask wearing, despite the DeSantis order.

Grady, the board chairman, maintained that Friday’s board action aligned with the governor’s policy to leave health and education decisions to parents. In response to emails that espressed desire for local control, Grady said, “You can’t have more local control than control by a parent.”

The rule on Hope Scholarships gives parents "an additional educational and health option in cases when a student is subjected to COVID-19-related harassment," Matthew Mears, general counsel for the Board of Education, said during the meeting. He said the rule defines harassment as "any threatening, discriminatory, insulting or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct that the student suffers in relation to or as a result of school-district protocols for COVID-19 — including face covering, the separation of students and COVID-19 testing requirements."

The rule applies "where the conduct has the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits," Mears said.

It also supplements the existing rule on Hope Scholarships, which have been intended for students "subjected to an incident of violence or bullying at school," according to the Florida Department of Revenue.

Hope Scholarships receive funding from automobile buyers, who "may designate $105 of the state sales tax due at the time of purchase or registration to an eligible nonprofit scholarship-funding organization" in the Hope Scholarships program, the Department of Revenue said.

The rule regarding quarantined students requires school districts to establish procedures, including access to assignments, materials and instructors, that allow students to continue their education at home.

Before voting, the Board of Educatiion opened both topics to questions and concerns from callers, several of whom expressed concern about a lack of virtual learning options in some districts. Some others spoke for or against mask mandates or about specifics on quarantines, promoting Board Chairman Grady to interrupt them.

To a Duval County caller who complained about the Florida Department of Health and a "communist takeover," Grady said, "This is not a meeting of the Health Department" and ended the call.