Broward schools keep mask mandate in place, defying DeSantis

Broward schools keep mask mandate in place, defying DeSantis
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Broward could become the first school district in Florida to require masks this fall, setting up a potential battle with Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch opponent of mask mandates.

School Board members unanimously agreed Wednesday to keep the existing mask policy through at least the start of the fall, citing rising COVID-19 rates and new federal guidance encouraging masks in schools, even for the vaccinated. They plan to reconsider the issue shortly after Labor Day.

Several School Board members said they were prepared to make masks optional, but that changed Tuesday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it was recommending masks for everyone in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics made a similar recommendation last week.

“As a district, we have always been very adamant about following the science as we make important decisions about the health and well-being of our students, and I don’t think we should deviate from that,” board member Laurie Rich Levinson said.

Board member Patti Good said, “Making masks voluntary means most students aren’t going to wear them.”

Broward has thus far been an outlier on the issue. Most if not all other districts in the state had already announced that masks would be optional, including Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Orange, Hillsborough and Duval counties. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said his district is reconsidering the issue in light of the new CDC recommendation but hasn’t made any decisions yet.

Christina Pushaw, press secretary for DeSantis, said she’s not aware of any other districts planning to require masks. She reaffirmed the governor’s suggestion that he could call a special session of the state Legislature “to ensure a normal, mask-optional school year.” She said House Speaker Chris Sprowls has told DeSantis he’s’ “all in” if a special session is needed.

“Governor DeSantis’ position is that parents should be able to choose what’s best for their own children. Fortunately, research indicates that COVID is not a serious risk to healthy children,” Pushaw said in an email. “Governor DeSantis has always followed the science and made data-driven decisions, which is why schools have been open in Florida since last year — to the enormous benefit of Florida’s children —- and have not been a significant source of COVID spread.”

Despite the new CDC guidance, “the Governor’s position on this has not changed. We hope that Broward County School Board makes the right decision,” she wrote.

School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said she doesn’t see this as defying DeSantis.

“I don’t think that the governor has implemented a law at this time that says school districts can’t make mask mandates,” she said. “Once the governor implements that law, this school district will be responsible to do whatever is the proper law,”

The dispute is reminiscent of one the School Board had with DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran last year over school reopening. Broward was the last school district to reopen its campus after switching to virtual learning at the start of the pandemic. The district finally opened in mid-October after a threat of loss of state funds.

The School Board action Wednesday came despite a recommendation by outgoing Superintendent Robert Runcie, who did not attend the meeting, to make masks optional but “strongly encouraged.” That was before the CDC announced it was recommending masks after initially saying vaccinated students and staff didn’t need them

Broward County’s testing positivity rate on Wednesday was 15%, significantly higher than 5%, which has been considered the recommended level for government reopenings. Much of the increase is due to the rapidly spreading Delta variant, which has infected even those who are vaccinated and has caused serious illness and death to the unvaccinated.

The mask discussion had been scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed after mask opponents crowded the lobby and refused to wear masks. About 20 showed up Wednesday, but the district required members of the public to stay outside and they were brought in one by one to make public comments.

Eight of nine public speakers vehemently opposed a mandate, often citing widely discredited information about the health and safety of masks on children.

But about two-thirds of about 100 written comments supported masks. Many cited the lack of a vaccine for children under 12 as a reason for a mandate.

“Can you really live with something happening to a child or employee when there is a simple behavior (mask wearing) that can help minimize it?” Lauderhill resident Bobbi Edwards wrote.

But Hollywood resident David Berger said forced masks are unfair to children.

“Teachers are protected by the vaccine, and if they chose not to get vaccinated, that is a personal choice,” he said. “Children should not have to bear the responsibility of a teacher’s decision not to be vaccinated. The evidence is overwhelming that the risk of COVID to children is infinitesimal.

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