Lawmakers seek to strengthen charter of parental rights

Lawmakers seek to strengthen charter of parental rights

During a special legislative session this week to respond to mandates related to the pandemic, Republican lawmakers are also aiming to expand existing law known as the Parental Rights Act to include a ban on school mask requirements.

State lawmakers approved the parental rights law during the 2021 legislative session this spring and Governor Ron DeSantis signed off on the measure in June.

Republican sponsors of the legislation introduced this measure as a way to combine several provisions of existing state law that deal with parental consent, such as provisions that include information families are entitled to learn about their children’s education and health care.

But the law was brought to the center of discussions about school mask mandates when DeSantis used it, in part, as the basis for an executive order issued in July that sought to block student mask requirements.

DeSantis’ executive order led to an emergency law enacted on September 22 by the state’s Department of Health that says parents should have “freedom to do” about whether students wear masks at school. The rule also prohibits schools from ordering asymptomatic students to self-quarantine at home after exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

On Monday, November 15, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a broad measure (SB 2-B) that seeks, among other things, to exempt workers from employer-required vaccinations against COVID-19. The committee approved the bill by a majority of 7-4 votes on partisan lines.

The proposal includes a provision that would expand the Parental Rights Act to include prohibitions against student mask requirements and isolation for students who are asymptomatic — effectively strengthening the Health Department’s rule in state law.

“We know that if a student is asymptomatic in our classrooms, they likely won’t pose a threat to others. So, we’re aware of that,” Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican who chairs the committee and sponsored the measure, told the committee Monday.

But Senator Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, has argued that requirements for mitigating COVID-19 should be set at the local level.

“School districts, mayors, councilors, committee members, they know what’s going on in their communities and how they want to make sure people are kept safe. Leave it to the locals. Why get involved in politically-driven legislation,” she said.

Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Representative Fentris Driskill accused DeSantis of using the Parental Rights Act “at once as a sword and as a shield” in his executive order.

“It[the law]was not intended to be used to put children at risk. So having the governor twist it in this way, to me, leads to this perverse result where he basically says that some parents have higher rights over other parents,” said Driskill, D-Tampa. Because he says… “What about parents who want their kids not to have to wear a mask?” Well, what about parents who want their kids to be safe in the classroom? “

Similar measures approved by the House and Senate committees on Monday also seek to prevent public schools and higher education institutions from enforcing COVID-19 vaccinations on students or staff.

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 students who are asymptomatic to be isolated after exposure to the virus. Parents who win in court can receive attorneys’ 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 for anyone who wants them. There are treatments, other treatments … are being developed or are being developed. Cures are available,” Burgess said.

But the proposed ban on vaccination mandates in schools drew criticism from Democrats on the Senate committee.

“This anti-bloody rhetoric will also lead to childhood outbreaks, and I’m afraid that’s where this law leads us on the way forward,” said Senator Tina Polsky, Democratic Senator – Boca Raton.

The House Commerce Committee on Monday approved a similar measure (HB 1B), sponsored by Republicans Erin Grall of Vero Beach and Ralph Masolo of Lecanto.

House Democrats have questioned the need to ban student mask mandates. Representative Joe Geller, D-Aventura, lobbied Massullo, a dermatologist, on this part of the bill.

“From your medical point of view and your training, which I have the utmost respect for…what harm could be done to a child who goes to school, or my child goes to school, and has to wear a mask?” asked Geller.

“Damage,” Masulo replied, “during early life development, children need to be social and have many psychological problems that their interactions with others prevent.”

The special session is expected to conclude on Thursday.

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