Facing South Florida: Centner Academy

Jim DeFede took an in-depth look at the ongoing controversy swirling around the Centner Academy, a Miami private school, whose CEO has told teachers they risk getting fired if they get the COVID vaccine.

Video Transcript

- Now from CBS 4 News, this is "Facing South Florida" with Jim DeFede.

JIM DEFEDE: Good morning, and welcome to "Facing South Florida". We are going to start with the Centner Academy, a private school in Miami run by Leila and David Centner. Leila Centner has some strange and arguably dangerous beliefs when it comes to COVID-19. Teachers tell me they felt bullied by her not to wear a mask during the pandemic. And then she came out against the COVID vaccine, urging her teachers and staff not to get vaccinated and threatening to fire anyone who does.

LEILA CENTNER: But if you want to get it, I have to draw the line in the sand today and tell you that if you want to get it, that this is not going to be the right school for you, especially right now when we don't know what's going on. I don't want our community to be part of this experiment.

JIM DEFEDE: She even demanded in a letter to teachers and staff that they must disclose if they've been vaccinated.

LEILA CENTNER: And because this is an experiment, because whoever is taking it is part of the experiment, I can't allow all of us and the kids to be part of that experiment. So your body, your choice still. If you want to get it, I understand and I respect that. But you have to let us know.

JIM DEFEDE: Leila Centner keep citing a debunked conspiracy theory popular on the internet that people who are vaccinated can emit something from their body that causes women and girls near them to profusely menstruate. On Wednesday, the story took another dramatic turn when a fifth grade math and science teacher at the school told her students the vaccine was dangerous and they should not hug their parents for more than five seconds. The White House commented on it last week, but even they admitted there is not much they can do, which brings me to Tallahassee.

This year, the legislature has been busy fixing problems that don't exist, a voting bill, a bill on transgender, kids playing sports, and doing nothing about big issues that are a problem like the unemployment system and expanding healthcare. But this story has hit a nerve in the legislature. Here is state representative Michael Grieco.

MICHAEL GRIECO: I just got a text indirectly from a parent at that school. Their child has informed them that their teachers are telling them not to hug their parents for more than five seconds if their parents have been vaccinated. This is the world that we live in. This is the Florida that we live in. And I'm sure that these people are not alone.

JIM DEFEDE: Now the governor has been pushing a law that would prevent businesses from requiring so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports. So this week, State Senator Jason Pizzo introduced an amendment that would also make it illegal to fire someone for getting vaccinated. Here's how that debate went.

JASON PIZZO: This is a student email to a parent at the school yesterday. They're telling us to stay away from you guys and not hug you guys more than five seconds. She's also saying we should not get the COVID vaccine. That's a teacher telling a student to stay away from their parents if they've been vaccinated. This is actually happening. Did you honestly think that there was going to be a-- I didn't, a business that would say, you cannot work here anymore teachers.

Telling your teachers that if you choose to get vaccinated, you are not allowed to work here anymore. Now you can anti-vax in your household. But you have 300 students and, for the bonus feature, you're using taxpayer dollars because you have one of the scholarship kids that we're all chipping in to send there. So let's just be fair. I withdrew the Amendment as it relates to vaccine passports. That's fine. But as of right now, guys, this is it. My district's counting on us to push back against this quackery.

So right now what I've heard from the agency at the surgeon general of the state of Florida, the Department of Education, and I've yet to hear back from DCF, but they believe right now they have no purview or control over 300 students being told not to hug your parents. That doesn't seem right.

JIM DEFEDE: Here is what state Senator Jeff Brandes, a Republican from Saint Petersburg, had to say.

JEFF BRANDES: This might be one of the most reasonable amendments that we have heard all year. Can you imagine being discriminated against because you followed the CDC guidelines, because you got a vaccine and were doing everything the government told you to do. But then your employer tells you, I'm sorry. You can't work here because you tried to save your life by getting a vaccine. I mean, it's almost insane that we're having to have this discussion.

But here we are. So let's vote for this. Let's show that the Senate is not insane, that we're reasonable people, and that we're not going to allow businesses to prevent somebody from working there for doing exactly what we told them that they should do. I hope you'll support this amendment.

JIM DEFEDE: Jason Pizzo closed with this.

JASON PIZZO: Each one of those kids in my district are a hell of a lot more important than the timing and the inconvenience it is to send this back to the House to put this on. The hands are going to go up and we're going to take a vote. The kids of my district's lives, and safety, and the pressure, and the suffering are worth a hell of a lot more than the inconvenience of sending back a message. So I'll take it for any other [INAUDIBLE] banking, insurance, tech, privacy, whatever. But not kids' lives. Not kids' lives.

JIM DEFEDE: Now you have to understand. In Tallahassee, democrats don't even come close to winning on an issue like this. But watch what happened.

- Log the board and record the vote.

- 19 yeas, 19 nays, Mr. President.

- So the amendment is not adopted.

JIM DEFEDE: You can hear the audible gasps. Three republicans cross over and voted with democrats. Now I should note, two Miami-Dade Republican state senators, Ileana Garcia and Ana Maria Rodriguez, voted against the amendment. But the real shocker was State Senator Manny Diaz Jr. On Wednesday, this is what he told me.

MANNY DIAZ JR.: We should not be asking people or requiring people that if they have taken a vaccine they're excluded. So I do believe that that's a big concern. And it could be a danger on the healthcare side because if you have folks like that trying to dissuade people from taking a vaccine that's available, I think that could be a problem as well.

JIM DEFEDE: And yet, 24 hours later, Manny Diaz got up and walked out of the Senate chamber so he wouldn't have to cast a vote. And as soon as the vote was over, he came back in. When I asked him why he took a walk on the vote, he wrote, "unfortunately, I was not on the floor during the amendment Senator Pizzo presented due to the fact that I was working on amendments and items crucial for Miami-Dade County. Although the Senate voting board does not show my vote, I not only oppose creating vaccine passports, I also object to penalizing people who made the decision to get vaccinated."

Of course, if he had stayed and voted, he could have actually done something to protect those people. Now the Centners are major republican donors and gave more than $1 million to Donald Trump's reelection campaign, and another million to republican candidates across the country. All of this got me thinking about who is really there to protect teachers or any worker for that matter in a situation like this. On Friday, I spoke to Karla Hernandez-Mats, the union president for the United Teachers of Dade.

KARLA HERNANDEZ-MATS: Well, it's very negligent that any type of academic institution would say that kind of misinformation to students, to teachers, to parents, to the community, and think that it would be OK. These poor teachers are obviously very scared. They're coming out about this situation. And they're still hiding. They're not trying to say their names, or they don't want to go on camera. And it just really shows the disparate treatment that they have, how they don't have contractual rights.

And as a labor organization, that's something that worries me, because although we don't represent them at United Teachers of Dade, these are our colleagues. They're educators. And they should have rights and they should be able to protect themselves, their bodies, and of course their families from this virus. And if they decide to take the vaccine, that should be OK.

JIM DEFEDE: Does it also talk about the fact that there's not a lot of accountability in terms of private schools. I know that the Department of Education in Florida, the health department in Florida, even the Department of Children and Families have all essentially come out and said there's nothing that they can do about it even though the school accepts taxpayer dollars in both the form of a voucher, one of the students is receiving a voucher, and receive more than $800,000 in federal PPP loans. Does it say that there is a lack of accountability? Talk about that.

KARLA HERNANDEZ-MATS: Absolutely. That is a major point of contention that we've had with our state legislature for multiple years now. These are schools that have been funded more and more every year at the cost of our public schools. This is public tax dollars being funneled into for profit industries that are unaccountable. So you have people that don't have an education background, that believe in certain theories, or whatever it is that they decide that they want to start a private school. And the state gives them all of our, not all, but a big portion of our tax dollars that are taken away from our public schools.

And there's no accountability. We don't see how they're academically improving the academic success of children. We see misinformation like this that's being spread. And it's just something that is really harmful to our schools, and obviously to children as well. Because when you are brainwashing them to think a certain thing, when you are using taxpayer dollars to promote a specific religion, a specific type of ideology, I think it should be something that's alarming to our community.

JIM DEFEDE: We'll be right back.