By Bobeth Yates

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) —  Florida students will be allowed to use state-backed vouchers to transfer to private schools if they object to wearing masks in classrooms, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and state education officials argue that decisions about masks should be left up to parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida’s Board of Education approved an emergency rule Friday that will expand the state’s Hope Scholarship voucher program to allow students who don’t want to wear masks to transfer to private schools. The Hope Scholarship program was originally intended to offer vouchers to students who have been the victims of such things as bullying. Friday’s decisions allows the use of the private school vouchers if parents feel their children are being harassed by a school district’s COVID-19 safety policies, including mask requirements.

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With some Florida Schools starting in the next few days, the State Board of Education held an emergency meeting to address school districts’ mask mandate policies approving two new rules.  One prevents students who don’t show up for the first two weeks from being un-enrolled the other would allow students who have a problem with their school mask policy to transfer out. “The rule specifically allows students who are subjected to COVID-19 harassment to transfer to a private school or another school in the district or another district altogether,” said Matthew Mears, the State Board of Education, General Counsel during the meeting.

The emergency rule expands the use of  “the Hope Scholarship Program” which was originally created for students being bullied.  And, the board says given the controversy over masks it’s important to expand the guidelines to include those who feel harassed by a school districts’ mask rules, like the governor, the board says it is about parental choice.

But not everyone agrees with the move, “the blood is going to be on Governor DeSantis and my colleagues’ hands”, said State Senator Shevrin Jones.

Senator Jones says the expansion of the Hope Scholarship to include Covid-19 harassment, will hurt school funding because if students transfer out – that’s less money provided to the school, the alternative he says is to risk the lives of students and teachers during the pandemic.

“If a school district it’s going to have a mask requirement they have to allow for parents to opt-out the student from that requirement. Students whose parents have opted out of the mask or face covering requirement shall not be subjected to any harassment or any discriminatory treatment including but not limited to search in physical locations, the isolation during school activities or exclusion from any school activities,” said Ben Gibson, State Board of Education, Vice-Chair during Friday’s emergency meeting.

“The highly contagious Delta variant continues to push Florida’s hospitals to the brink also let it be known that our pediatric ICU units are also filling up right now. I would just ask that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to stop trying to gain or score political points and look at this as a public health and a public education thing first,” added Jones.

“‘COVID-19 harassment’ means any threatening, discriminatory, insulting, or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct an individual student suffers in relation to, or as a result of, school district protocols for COVID-19, including masking requirements, the separation or isolation of students, or COVID-19 testing requirements, that have the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance,” the rule reads.

The meeting was scheduled a week after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the department to come up with ways of having school districts that mandate mask-wearing provide other alternatives for parents, saying they had the legal right to make decisions about their children’s health and education.

In a statement from Anna Fusco, Broward Teachers Union President agreed saying, “I am extremely upset and disappointed that the Florida Board of Education has voted to offer parents who protest mask mandates the choice to opt-out or receive a voucher to send their children to a private or charter school that does not require masks. Coupled with the state’s refusal to release $11 billion in federal COVID recovery funding to our public schools, this is a thinly veiled attempt to further erode and dismantle Florida’s public education system. Beyond the obvious safety issue when children and teachers do not have to wear masks, these schools have no accountability and do not provide the high-quality education offered by public schools, and the losers are our children. Children who are in quarantine because they were exposed to or have contracted COVID lose precious instructional days.”

DeSantis said in his Executive Order that the rules could include withholding money from school districts or other actions allowed under Florida law. At a news conference Friday he reiterated his general opposition to restrictions, such as lockdowns, business closures and mask mandates.

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“In terms of imposing any restrictions. That’s not happening in Florida. It’s harmful, it’s destructive. It does not work,” he said, saying Los Angeles County had a winter surge despite all its restrictions. “We really believe that individuals know how to best assess their risks. We trust them to be able to make those decisions. We just want to make sure everybody has information.”

Two Florida school districts have decided to follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they restart classes next week because of dramatic rises in coronavirus infections.

Florida now leads the country in COVID-19 related hospitalizations.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 rose from 12,516 on Thursday to 12,864, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Hospital data shows 2,680 of those patients required intensive care, using about 42% of the ICU beds in the state, compared to less than 20% they were using two weeks ago.

The CDC said the number of new cases being reported by the state have raised Florida’s 7-day average to an all-time high of 18,120.

School boards in Duval County in Jacksonville, and Alachua County in Gainesville, decided this week to require mask-wearing indoors, citing the rise in hospitalizations.

In South Florida, districts are still undecided on their mask directives.

And the districts that are not following the governor’s executive order, restricting mask mandates could have bigger problems.

“With the state board we have certain authority of either withholding the transfer of state funds or other tools in our toolbox to ensure that the school districts are following the law,” said Vice chair Gibson.

The Broward County School Board had voted to require masks after hours of contentious debate that included a screaming match from angry anti-mask parents who set fire to masks and held picket signs outside. The board reversed course Monday over fear of losing funding, but on Wednesday said on Twitter that they are “waiting for guidance” in light of the governor’s orders. There is a meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools says it will decide next week about what it will do for the upcoming school year. Miami-Dade students return to class on August 23, five days later than Broward.

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(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)