South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Scott Travis | August 10, 2021
Broward County students will have to wear masks in schools, and parents may not be able to easily opt out, the School Board decided Tuesday.
The board voted 8-1, with Lori Alhadeff dissenting, to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis and directives from two state agencies. The board also agreed to pursue legal action challenging state rules that allow parents to ignore mask mandates for their children.
The action means the district is keeping a mask mandate that requires all students, staff and visitors to wear masks when school starts Aug. 18. The only exception will be for students with medical conditions, or requirements of an individual education plan, which are already exemptions that have been allowed for the past year.
The board’s action may violate an executive order by DeSantis and a rule by the state Department of Health that allows parents to opt out of mask policies.
DeSantis, a staunch opponent of mask mandates, has threatened to strip school districts of funding, including withholding pay for School Board members and the superintendent.
“Lose our salaries? Bring it,” board member Nora Rupert said. “When you put that out there, it makes me work harder for our schoolchildren and families.”
The action came despite Marylin Batista, interim general counsel, advising the district to follow the state rule but that may be the best option because the governor’s executive order and the Health Department rule have the same effect as laws.
‘The law can be challenged, but it should not be ignored,” Batista said.
The change could result in Broward having one of the strictest mask policies in the state. Palm Beach County, which started school Tuesday, is requiring masks, but the district allows parents to opt out with a written note, a policy similar to Duval, Hillsborough and Orange counties.
The governor’s office has said that procedure is acceptable.
Miami-Dade hasn’t made a decision yet. Leon and Alachua counties are allowing parents to opt out only with a note from a physician or mental health professional.
The Broward School Board first voted to approve the mask mandate July 28, citing skyrocketing COVID-19 cases and recent guidance from the federal government.
The board’s action prompted DeSantis to issue an executive order two days later saying parents should not have to adhere to mask mandates. He instructed the state Department of Health and Board of Education to issue rules to that effect.
The school district said July 31 that it would comply but did an about-face two days later and said the mask mandate would remain in place at least until the School Board could discuss it today.
The Health Department ruled Friday that parents must be able to opt out of mask rules, while the education board expanded a voucher program for kids who feel bullied or harassed because of mask mandates or other COVID rules. Those students can receive vouchers to attend private schools.
DeSantis and some masks opponents who spoke Tuesday said the job of parents, not school districts, to decide whether a mask is needed for their children.
“Your job is to educate our children, not to make medical decisions.” Sunrise parent Joseph C. Carter told the School Board. “Your job is to teach our children to read, write and do math. Please leave the rest of the decisions to parents.”
But mask supporters cited scientific studies that have found masks are most effective when everyone wears them. They said their kids aren’t protected if someone with COVID is in class without a mask.
“I would agree if it’s a health care choice that just affects your individual child, you have the right to make that choice,” board member Laurie Rich Levinson said. “The difference is we’re dealing with COVID. One’s rights end where they infringe upon other’s rights.”