FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Broward County School Board voted 8-1 in favor of keeping their mask requirement for students and staff members at the start of the upcoming 2021-22 school year, defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order.
In a special meeting held Tuesday, all nine board members lashed out at DeSantis for what they call government overreach and abuse of power following his executive order that forces school districts in Florida to make the wearing of masks optional.
The school board is seeking legal counsel because they want to challenge some of the state orders that they argue take away local control from the public school district.
“We are charged and we were elected to keep everyone in our school building safe,” board member Debra Hixon said.
Lori Alhadeff was the lone dissenting vote on the board. Alhadeff had initially indicated she was willing to support keeping a mask mandate as long as it gave parents a way to opt out. But the board voted to keep mandates and only allow medical opt-outs.
The first day of school in the county is Aug. 18.
[ALSO SEE: DeSantis says schools shouldn’t ‘override the rights’ of parents on masks]
“Wearing masks inside schools regardless of vaccine status is required to deal with the changing realities of virus transmission. It is a necessary precaution until children under 12 can receive a COVID-19 vaccination and more Americans 12 and older get vaccinated,” Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco said in a statement following the vote. “We continue to be concerned about this variant, but our No. 1 priority remains a safe in-person school year in schools that can stay open.
“Given the new evidence, that means requiring everyone in school buildings to wear masks. We are thankful that the Broward School Board agrees with CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics guidance. We strongly agree that mask wearing, along with the COVID vaccine for those who are eligible, will help prevent transmission of COVID-19 and the Delta variant in classrooms at a time when Florida leads the nation in new virus cases and hospitalizations.”
DeSantis’ ban of mask mandates has led to a major battle, with state officials now threatening to withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members who defy the governor’s executive order.
That order also threatens to take away funding from school districts that force students to wear a mask.
“Even if it means my salary is taken away ... even if means I’m no longer in this seat, my conscience will be at peace,” School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood said of her vote Tuesday. “People’s lives are invaluable even if it means that I’m not going to get a paycheck.”
Tuesday’s meeting came after the Broward School Board initially said they would implement a mask mandate during the start of the school year before DeSantis issued his executive order banning such mandates.
School officials then said they would comply with the executive order before backtracking once again, saying that they would meet Tuesday before a final decision was made.
Close to 50 people spoke in person at the meeting, and the board received 373 comments online.
“I don’t feel comfortable with my son having to go into school and having to wear a mask the entire day, five days a week,” parent Kelly Doyle said.
Other parents asked for the mask mandate to stay in place.
“My child needs to be protected,” Ana Anselmo said. “All she wants to do is go to school and learn.”
The debate got heated outside Tuesday’s meeting, too, as demonstrators on both sides of the mask issue gathered in the parking lot.
“As a teacher, I don’t mind if my students come in a mask or don’t come in a mask. That is a decision for the parents to make,” one staff member, Joseph Carter, said.
But there are faculty members on the other side of the debate, as well.
“We have elementary kids who are not eligible for vaccination coming into our classrooms, possibly exposing us to COVID,” fourth-grade teacher Yolanda Smith said. “We’re in a national, and may I add, deadly pandemic and the governor is playing politics.”
During a news conference in Surfside on Tuesday, the governor doubled down on his stance.
“Now there’s an attempt to say that the Delta variant has changed a lot with respect to kids,” DeSantis said. “Here’s what I can tell you. If you look throughout the entire pandemic, between 1.1 and 1.4% of COVID-positive patients in Florida hospitals have been pediatrics. And right now, it’s 1.3%, so you have not seen a change in the proportion of the young people who end up being admitted.”
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has been highly critical of the governor and plans to run for his job next year, said she believes the choice should be up to local school boards.
Duval County student Lila Hartley, 12, spoke with Fried Monday and said she is worried her younger brother will get sick at school.
“This authoritarian, it’s his way or the highway … and at the expense of our children,” Fried said. “You’re not hurting the school board members by taking away funding, you’re hurting Lila and her friends.”
But DeSantis maintained his position Tuesday that the decision to wear masks should ultimately be up to the parents.
“We think it’s ultimately the parents’ decision. We think that this is something that intimately affects the health and well-being of young kids,” he said. “We had a whole year to watch how this has developed in Florida, throughout the United States and throughout the world, and I can tell you in Florida we had school districts that mandated it last year, others that didn’t. Same with private and charter, and there was no statistical difference.”
At least five Florida counties have instituted mask mandates, including Broward, which is the state’s second-largest school district.
While they haven’t made a decision down in Miami-Dade County, there was more backlash from the teachers’ union against the governor.
“We’re seeing Gov. DeSantis act like a dictator,” union president Karla Hernandez-Mats said.
Click here to see the mask policy in Broward.
Click here to watch School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood’s news conference after the vote.
Click here to watch Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright’s news conference.