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Florida offers school vouchers for families angry with mask mandates while judge temporarily blocks ban in Arkansas

A protester with a sign against the school mask mandate in Tampa on May 18. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Disputes over whether schools should be allowed to require face masks escalated in two states Friday, with the ideological battle over public health and personal choice showing little sign of abating on the eve of the new school year.

In Arkansas, a judge temporarily blocked a state law that prevents schools and other government agencies from mandating masks. But in Florida, the state school board boosted the governor’s opposition to mandates, extending eligibility for a taxpayer-funded school voucher program to students who face mask requirements.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal masking in all schools, saying it is among the best strategies available to mitigate spread of the coronavirus. But Florida and Arkansas are among about a half-dozen states that have banned their school districts from imposing requirements.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has threatened to withhold funding from districts that don’t comply and argues that masks should be a personal choice. But a few Florida districts are set to defy those orders, arguing that masks are needed to protect students at a time when the delta variant of the disease is surging.

“If a parent wants their child to wear a mask, they should have that right,” state school board Vice Chair Ben Gibson said. “If a parent doesn’t want their child to wear a mask in school, they should have that right.”

As new school year looms, debates over mask mandates stir anger and confusion

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) had signed the ban against mask mandates in April but later supported rolling it back for schools. He argued that allowing individual school districts to make this decision was a conservative approach that boosted local control.

Hutchinson called the legislature back for a special session to reconsider the law, but lawmakers declined to make changes. The governor told reporters Friday that he was disappointed in the legislature and criticized some who he described as having a “casual if not cavalier attitude toward this public health emergency and toward this remedy that I suggested to them.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on Aug. 3 asked the General Assembly to amend a mask mandate ban to give school districts the flexibility to enact mask rules. (Video: Governor Asa Hutchinson)

Hutchinson’s comments came after a judge temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the law. The governor said the judge had properly ruled that the law “is unconstitutional and an overreach of authority.”

Arkansas banned mask mandates. Governor now says he regrets signing the law.

Friday’s order, issued by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox, ruled against the state on several grounds. The judge ruled that such intrusions into another branch of government’s actions amounted to an unconstitutional breach on the separation of powers. He also noted that while public schools were barred from mandating masks, private schools were not.

Tom Mars, attorney for two mothers who challenged the ban, noted that under the law, the court itself was prohibited from ordering those at the hearing to don masks — something that Fox himself had in fact ordered.

Back in Florida, opponents to DeSantis’s order have pointed to skyrocketing coronavirus cases in the state in recent weeks. Florida reported 22,783 new cases Thursday, the highest single-day count since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Several districts have threatened to defy the order. Alachua County, where the University of Florida is located, is mandating masks for the first two weeks of school amid a rise in coronavirus cases. Two school custodians in the district had recently died of covid-19.

Broward County had imposed a mask mandate but put it on pause after DeSantis threatened to withhold state funding from districts that required masks. Now it has reversed itself again. Masks must be worn by everyone in Broward public schools, the school board decided this week.

Some Florida school districts push ahead with mask mandates

DeSantis faced another challenge to his order Friday, as the parents of 15 children with disabilities who attend Florida public schools filed suit, saying his executive order barring mask mandates interfered with their rights under federal disability rights laws. The suit says the children are at severe health risk if they get covid-19 and want to be protected in schools every possible way, including with everyone wearing masks.

Under Friday’s action by the state board, children in districts with mandates could qualify for vouchers to attend private schools, though it was not clear how much money would be dedicated to the program or how many students might benefit.

The Florida state school board did not respond to a woman who spoke in the public comments section of the meeting to ask whether the vouchers would be available for students who want mask mandates and attend districts that do not require them.

The program, called the Hope Scholarship, normally is available to students who have been harassed or bullied in their public schools. Under the emergency order, the vouchers are available “when a school district’s COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a health or educational danger to their child.”

The Hope Scholarship, which began in the 2018-2019 school year, served 384 students last school year. The state has more than $6.2 million in the program’s fund and says it can serve another 850 students.

Damaris Allen, a public education advocate in Florida with one child in Hillsborough County Public Schools, said she worries about the health and safety of children who will be forced into schools with unmasked classmates, some of whom could be carrying the virus.

“They touted this by saying that parental choice is the most important thing,” she said. “But the challenge with this is that we know they are opting to choose one parent’s choice over another.”