South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Scott Travis | December 13, 2021
A Broward teacher could be fired Tuesday for repeatedly refusing to wear a mask on campus, a violation of a district policy that has since been rescinded.
The recommended termination of John C. Alvarez, 57, a science teacher at Piper High in Sunrise, could reignite a bitter debate in Broward over the required use of face coverings to combat COVID-19. School district officials are accusing Alvarez of insubordination, neglect of duty and incompetence. Alvarez plans to appeal the recommendation to a state administrative law judge.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how it proceeds,” Alvarez said in a brief interview Monday. “The state of Florida, which provides my licensure, has said mask mandates are unconstitutional.”
The state hasn’t actually done that. The state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis have banned districts from imposing mask mandates for students, but the law doesn’t address whether districts can require them for teachers or other employees.
“Gov. DeSantis has said clearly that he’s opposed to mask mandates of any kind,” said Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for the governor. “It is ironic that the same politicians who express concerns over a teacher shortage in Broward are willing to fire teachers for not covering their faces.”
School Board members had required students to wear masks in schools, mindful of how COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing earlier this year, including big increases in pediatric hospitalizations. The mandate also was consistent with the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Broward spent more than three months battling with the state over mask mandates, defying directives until mid-November, when COVID-19 cases had plummeted and the Legislature was about to enshrine the mandates into state law.
Masks became optional for everyone, including teachers, on Nov. 19. That means Alvarez could be fired retroactively for failing to adhere to a policy he now wouldn’t have to follow.
Alvarez’s issues with the district date back to a fire drill March 10, when he “was observed standing in the school parking lot, not practicing social distancing and his face was not covered,” according to a district complaint. The district’s policy at the time said masks were required outdoors in most instances unless people could maintain three feet of social distancing.
School staff noticed Alvarez without a mask repeatedly after that, the complaint says. When administrators asked him to wear a face covering, Alvarez said the requirement “is about compliance and has nothing to do with science,” the complaint says.
On Aug. 18, the first day of school, Alvarez showed up at Piper with Jason Mariner, the Republican candidate for the congressional seat to replace the late Alcee Hastings. Mariner posted a video exchange on YouTube of Alvarez debating with school officials about his refusal to wear a mask. YouTube later removed the video, saying it violated its community guidelines.
“I would fight for his right to wear a mask, just as I’d fight for his right to not wear one,” Mariner told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Monday. “It’s about personal choice, and quite frankly, I think it’s wrong what they’re doing to him.”
The school district normally uses progressive discipline against teachers accused of violations such as insubordination, suspending them first before terminating them. But the district is taking an unusual approach with this case, asking the School Board to first approve a five-day suspension and then a termination at the same meeting.
The office of Chief Communications Officer Kathy Koch didn’t answer questions about why this approach was being used.
According to material posted with the agenda, school district officials had difficulty setting up a due-process hearing for Alvarez’s five-day suspension, because he refused to wear a mask at these hearings. A virtual hearing was held Sept. 21, and at the end of the meeting, Alvarez still refused to comply.
“I don’t know why we’re just getting this now,” Board member Debbi Hixon said. “These issues happened on the first day of school. It sounds like he was not amenable to following the process.”
Alvarez, who makes about $53,000, has been a teacher in the district since 2007.