TALLAHASSEE — During a special legislative session this week to push back against pandemic-related mandates, Republican lawmakers also aim to expand an existing law known as the “Parent’s Bill of Rights” to include a ban on school mask requirements.
State lawmakers approved the Parent’s Bill of Rights during the 2021 legislative session this spring and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure in June.
Republican sponsors of the legislation pitched the measure as a way to combine several provisions of existing state law dealing with parental consent, such as provisions involving information families are entitled to know about their children’s education and health care.
But the law was vaulted to the center of discussions about school mask mandates when DeSantis used it, in part, as a basis for a July executive order that sought to prohibit student mask requirements.
DeSantis’ executive order led to a Sept. 22 emergency rule by the state Department of Health that said parents should have “sole discretion” over whether students wear masks at school. The rule also prohibits schools from ordering asymptomatic students to quarantine at home following exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved a wide-ranging measure (SB 2-B) that, among other things, seeks to exempt workers from employer-required vaccinations against COVID-19. The panel approved the bill in a 7-4 vote along partisan lines.
The proposal includes a provision that would expand the Parents’ Bill of Rights to include prohibitions against student mask requirements and quarantining of asymptomatic students — effectively cementing the health department’s rule into state law.
“We know that if an asymptomatic student is in our classrooms, then they likely do not pose a threat to others. So, we’re recognizing that,” Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who chairs the committee and sponsored the measure, told the panel Monday.
But Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, argued that COVID-19 mitigation requirements should be determined at the local level.
“School districts, mayors, council members, commission members, they know what’s happening in their communities and how they want to make sure to keep people safe. Leave it to the locals. Why are we intruding, in a politically driven piece of legislation,” she said.
Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Rep. Fentrice Driskell accused DeSantis of using the Parent’s Bill of Rights as “both a sword and a shield” in his executive order.
“The (law) was never meant to be used to put kids in danger. So for the governor to twist it in this way, to me, leads to this perverse outcome where he’s basically saying that certain parents have rights that are supreme to other parents,” Driskell, D-Tampa, said. “Because he says … ‘what about the parents who want their kids not to have to wear a mask?’ Well, what about the parents who want their kids to be safe in the classroom?”
The identical measures approved by House and Senate committees Monday also seek to prohibit public schools and higher education institutions from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for students or employees.
The proposals would allow parents to sue school districts that require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, require students to wear masks or require asymptomatic students to be quarantined after exposure to the virus. Parents who prevail in court could be awarded attorney fees and court costs.
“Simply put, we need to trust people to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. There are vaccines available to anyone who wants them. There are therapeutics, other treatments … that have been developed or are being developed. Treatments are available,” Burgess said.
But the proposed ban on school vaccination mandates drew criticism from Democrats on the Senate panel.
“This anti-vax rhetoric will also lead to childhood disease outbreaks, and I’m afraid that’s what this bill is leading us down the road towards,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.
The House Commerce Committee on Monday approved an identical measure (HB 1B), sponsored by Republicans Erin Grall of Vero Beach and Ralph Massullo of Lecanto.
Democrats on the House panel questioned the need to ban student mask mandates. Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, pressed Massullo, who is a dermatologist, about that section of the bill.
“From your medical point of view and training, which I have the utmost respect for … what is the harm that might occur to a kid going to school, my kid going to school, having to wear a mask?” Geller asked.
“The harm is, during the early development of life, kids need to be social and they have a lot of psychological issues that are precluded by their interactions with others,” Massullo replied.
The special session is expected to wrap up by Thursday.