When Broward County Public Schools students return to class next month, they will be wearing masks, the nine-member School Board unanimously decided Wednesday.
The decision comes a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its recommendations about vaccinated people wearing masks indoors, including for teachers, students and staff at schools nationwide. Because of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19, the agency now recommends all people wear facial coverings indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.
“The mask is the only thing you really have to minimize your chance of getting COVID,” Broward School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood told reporters during a break in Wednesday’s meeting at the Kathleen C. Wright Building in Fort Lauderdale.
The first day of school in Broward County is Aug. 18. District officials expect most of the system’s roughly 269,000 students to return to in-person learning.
Board amends plan to make masks mandatory
The board made masks mandatory, amending the district’s reopening plan that contained language that facial coverings remain optional, but “strongly” encouraged.
Board Member Donna Korn said, however, that most students won’t wear masks unless they’re mandatory.
“Making masks voluntary essentially means students aren’t going to wear them,” Korn said.
Similarly, Board Member Nora Rupert said she disagreed with the use of the word “strongly” when recommending masks, arguing it doesn’t go far enough to make people wear them.
“You’re going to get people who say if you’re strongly encouraging me, I’m strongly saying no,” Rupert said.
The meeting happened a day after the matter was scheduled to be discussed, but was postponed because the board agreed to wait for the CDC’s new recommendations, which came out Tuesday afternoon.
Anti-mask protesters show up at board meeting
A group of about 20 anti-mask protesters who refused to wear facial coverings confronted teachers union representatives during the Tuesday meeting in the K.C. Wright building’s lobby. Several of those protesters returned the next day and expressed their views during the public comment period.
The group was peaceful Wednesday and remained outside of the building, except when they individually spoke to the board. As a precaution, however, several Fort Lauderdale police officers were added to the building’s security and law enforcement detail.
Osgood called Tuesday’s protest “almost an insurrection.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly said he’s against mask mandates in schools and said he may call for a special legislative session to prohibit them. On Monday, he held a closed-door panel discussion to discuss masks, which the governor’s office then posted on Rumble, a video platform that is seen as a conservative alternative to YouTube.
Noting DeSantis’ stance, Board Member Sarah Leonardi urged her colleagues to “require masks while we can.”
Board Member Lori Alhadeff said she supports a mask mandate in the beginning of the school year, with the option of revisiting the policy every three months.
She said she made her decision based on information provided by the district showing only 21% of eligible students — those 12 to 19 — are vaccinated.
“I honestly was shocked to hear that number because I thought the vaccination rates would be much higher,” Alhadeff said.
Board Member Debra Hixon said she had wanted to keep masks optional, but the rate of Delta variant infections makes that no longer advisable, at least not for the beginning of the year.
“I just feel right now it would be irresponsible for us with these numbers as high as they are,” Hixon said.
Florida’s COVID case counts at January surge levels
Florida reported 16,038 new COVID cases statewide as of Tuesday, numbers not seen since January’s record case counts, according to data the state provided to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Board Vice Chair Laurie Rich Levinson said she too sees no choice but to require masks when school starts, but she also wants to discuss the matter when the board meets again on Sept. 8 to see if the situation with Delta improves. Rich Levinson blamed current conditions on those who still have not been vaccinated.
“If we want to get them there and we don’t want masks on our children, we have to get vaccinated,” she said.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho released a statement after the CDC released its revised recommendations saying that as of now, the district’s policy is that mask wearing by students, teachers and other staff is optional. But, given the current situation with the Delta variant, the district would revisit the issue.
“Miami-Dade County Public Schools is carefully monitoring the latest developments concerning COVID-19 to ensure decisions are made that best safeguard the well-being of students and employees,” Carvalho said in the Tuesday statement. “Approximately two months ago, based on environmental conditions at the time, we announced that a mask optional protocol would be in place for the upcoming school year. At this time, in light of the recent release of updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we believe it is prudent to take this conversation back to our task force of medical and public health experts. This is an important decision that cannot be rushed and must continue to be evaluated based on the scientific information available.”
Dade schools start class Aug. 22, later than most districts in Florida. Carvalho also said in the statement that the later start date means the COVID situation could change for better or worse before children have to return to class, giving the district more time to make a decision on masks.
Karla Hernandez Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, released a statement supporting a mask mandate.
“With the Delta variant explosive spread across Miami-Dade over the past couple of weeks, and its resultant increase in hospitalizations, we believe that the newly issued mask guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC are in the best interest of our students and educators. M-DCPS should follow the recommendations from these medical experts to ensure a safe and successful reopening for our community.”
Following the CDC’s change in direction regarding masks in schools, the Monroe County School District in the Florida Keys issued a guidance Wednesday urging eligible students to get vaccinated, that all students and staff wear masks, that unvaccinated students and staff exposed to COVID stay home and that anyone showing coronavirus symptoms stay home.
However, mask wearing when class begins Aug. 12 is optional, for now.
“We are hoping parents and students alike recognize the benefits of being vaccinated and wearing a mask if you cannot be vaccinated,” Monroe Superintendent Theresa Axford said in a statement. “For those who remain unvaccinated you are still at risk of infection and of infecting others if you don’t wear a mask.”