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As School Starts In Florida, Debate Rages Over Whether Districts Can Require Masks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Classes resume this week in Florida. Many school districts are requiring students to wear face coverings, though Florida's governor has issued an executive order saying it's up to parents, not school administrators, to decide.

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RON DESANTIS: Parents have the fundamental right to raise their children, their health and well-being, and that that has to be respected by the state at all levels of government.

SHAPIRO: Under a recent state ruling, children in Florida whose parents don't want them to wear masks could now receive scholarships to private schools. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended everyone wear masks in school. Here to explain is NPR's Greg Allen in Miami.

Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: It looks like school districts are violating the governor's order by requiring face masks. Is that what's going on here?

ALLEN: Well, despite the rhetoric and the politicking, which has included snipes exchanged by Governor DeSantis and President Biden, school districts mostly have policies that do seem to comply with the governor's order. Many of the largest school districts have announced that they'll be requiring students to wear face masks, but parents and students will be able to opt out by filling out a form. A spokesperson for the governor says those policies appear to comply with the order. In at least two districts, though, school officials say a doctor's note will also be required. The governor's spokesperson says those districts may be in violation and may be subject to penalties. No decisions yet.

Debates, though, are going on in every school district. In Jacksonville, the school board last week heard from many parents pushing for the mandate and also from a 12-year-old girl named Lila Hartley, who wrote a letter. She's a middle school student who's been vaccinated but is worried about her 10-year-old brother.

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LILA HARTLEY: I just don't want him or any other kids that can't get vaccinated to get sick at school.

ALLEN: She wrote that letter to the school board last week and spoke at a news conference today.

SHAPIRO: And as we mentioned, there's another option for parents who don't want their kids to wear masks at school, which is this possible scholarship that parents can qualify for to private schools. How does that work?

ALLEN: Right. Well, you know, following DeSantis' executive order, the departments of health and education released emergency rules last week. The rules say the decision on whether kids wear face masks in school will be made by the parents and that any child facing harassment or loss of opportunities for wearing a face mask can now apply for a state-directed scholarship to a private school. That's a program that's already in place that allows kids subjected to bullying to attend private schools on a scholarship. This rule extends it specifically to this contentious face mask issue. And at the board of education meeting where the rule was adopted, Chairman Tom Grady acknowledged he got a lot of critical emails.

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TOM GRADY: One of the themes repeated is the desire for local control, and you can't have more local control than control by a parent.

ALLEN: But a lawsuit has already been filed, saying these rules violate Florida's constitution, which gives local school boards authority over all the schools - school matters in the district.

SHAPIRO: Governor DeSantis also made news last week when he threatened to withhold funds from school districts that don't comply with his orders. Is that likely to happen? Is he going to follow through on the threat?

ALLEN: Well, it's hard to say. The governor's office reiterated that threat today, saying penalties could be tailored to target the salaries of superintendent or school board members. That said, the policy school boards are adopting do seem to comply with the rules that have been issued. But the threat does raise the stake for the districts, both financially and politically. And it's a punitive measure they've used before. Today, we heard from Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida's top Democrat.

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NIKKI FRIED: School boards should absolutely have the authority to make decisions that are in the best interest of their students and teachers without facing political retribution.

ALLEN: Fried says she's been in discussion with the White House about possibly finding federal money to replace any state funding that's withheld from districts if this goes on.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami, thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.