Broward County Public Schools will ease its mask mandate for high school students — making them “strongly encouraged”— although facial coverings will still be mandatory for elementary and middle school students.
The School Board narrowly approved the decision with a 5-3 vote at a specially called meeting Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale. School Board member Lori Alhadeff was not there and did not vote.
The policy change is effective Monday, said Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright.
The three board members who voted “no” — Debra Hixon, Donna Korn and Sarah Leonardi — had different reasons for their decision.
Leonardi said the restrictions should not be eased at any grade level. Broward, which is the nation’s sixth largest school district, is one of the few major metropolitan districts in the country that is considering easing its mask policy, she said.
“It seems that we are having this discussion here in South Florida, but there are other districts nationally that this isn’t even a question,” the District 3 representative said.
Hixon and Korn said they were in favor of an option that would allow parents to opt out of the mask mandate for their children at any grade level.
“I personally would like to continue a mask mandate with a parental opt out,” Hixon said.
Concern about younger students at risk of COVID
Almost all board members said mask mandates and current quarantine policies should stay in place for the lower grades until a coronavirus vaccine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for children ages 5 through 11.
“I don’t think it’s a very fair situation to put our young ones and their families at risk,” said Nora Rupert, who represents District 7.
School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood called the meeting because the board said when it implemented the mask mandate in the summer that it would revisit the policy when local COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations significantly dropped, which they have.
Specifically, the positivity rate in Broward County has been below 3% for the past few days, dropping as low as 2.2% on Sunday, Osgood said.
But, she agreed that until children under 12 are eligible for the vaccine, only high schoolers should have mask mandates loosened. In December, the FDA authorized for emergency use the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 and older. In May, the FDA expanded that authorization to include those 12-15 years of age.
FDA panel approves COVID vaccines for children ages 5-11
On Tuesday, an FDA advisory committee voted to authorize Pfizer COVID vaccines for children ages 5 to 11. The FDA would have to approve this before the vaccine could be administered.
“If we want to get back to business as usual, get vaccinated,” Osgood said. “This is about protecting each other and protecting our babies.”
The Broward School Board decision comes a day after the Biden administration once again weighed in on the Florida Department of Education’s ongoing battle with Broward and seven other school districts. The districts, which include the school boards in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties, have defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ orders, which call for parents to decide the issue of masks, not school districts.
The state has levied fines against Broward and Alachua counties’ school districts equivalent to the annual salaries of the school board members who voted for mask mandates.
The Biden administration, in turn, has so far sent $420,957 to Broward County Public Schools and $148,000 to Alachua County Public Schools to offset the fines. The districts applied for the federal grants after the state withheld the funds.
Feds, Florida fighting over school masks
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran warning him not to take any further action against Broward and Alachua counties’ school districts.
“If FLDOE moves forward with its planned reduction of state aid to Alachua and Broward, the department is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions,” Ian Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs at the U.S. Department of Education, wrote.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the largest district in the state, announced last week that it could soon ease its mask mandate by giving parents the choice to opt their children out.
A Miami-Dade school district spokeswoman said Tuesday that a decision could be made by the end of the week, but school officials are still consulting with a task force of medical professionals advising the district.
The Broward School Board’s decision was met with anger by the parents who attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Many school board meetings in Broward and Miami-Dade since the summer have been attended by dozens of people loudly protesting mask mandates, many of whom do not have children in the school system.
Parents speak up about masks
But, the three women who spoke at the meeting Tuesday either have or have had children in the public school system. They said they are not against COVID vaccines or wearing masks, but they don’t believe either should be mandatory for children, especially with positivity rates in South Florida so low at the moment.
“Now that we meet that metric, now it’s mysteriously about how it’s until the COVID vaccine is available for elementary students,” said Sarah Demauro, the mother of a son in a public high school in Broward.
Jenna Hague, who removed her daughter from Embassy Creek Elementary School in Hollywood and placed her in a charter school, agreed. She has been a vocal critic of the district’s masking mandates for months.
“When they ask for public comment, they do it because they have to, but they don’t listen to what we say,” Hague said.
Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco released a statement Tuesday afternoon praising the School Board’s decision.
“Masks are not political statements and it’s unfortunate that groups within our society have made it one — and even more unfortunate that political leaders have used mandatory mask mandates to punish school districts for doing the right thing,” Fusco said.
“The School Board showed today that threats and political games won’t deter them from prioritizing the safety and health of our students and staff.”