Miami-Dade school board approves mask mandate, defying state

The school board in Miami-Dade County voted to approve a face mask mandate that will be in place when the new school year begins next week.

MIAMI – The school board in Miami-Dade County voted to approve a face mask mandate that will be in place when the new school year begins next week.

The board voted 7-1 in a meeting Wednesday, creating a similar policy to the one in Broward County designed to protect students and faculty against COVID-19.

The policy allows for a medical exemption but defies Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order against mask mandates. It is DeSantis’ position, and that of the state board of education, that parents should have the choice whether their children wear masks at school.

Lubby Navarro was the only Miami-Dade school board member to vote against the mandate. Board member Christi Fraga was not present.

Public school starts Monday in the largest school district in Florida.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho recommended a mask mandate despite opposition from the state.

“The right thing includes, in my opinion, a mandatory mask policy,” Carvalho said. “This is not a political statement. This is a protective tool.”

The policy in Broward, which began school Wednesday, put that county in the crosshairs of the state’s education department, as Miami-Dade’s decision is likely to.

The state board of education voted Tuesday to sanction Broward schools for defying the governor’s orders that say masks should be optional.

It’s a fate the Broward superintendent and school board vice chair Dr. Steve Gallon, who authored the item up for vote, said they are willing to face.

“My daughter is a grade student at Miami Dade County Public Schools . She may lament about wearing a mask. So as a parent I understand,” Gallon said. “But as a policy maker, I have to make a determination as it relates to what is in the best interest of all of our children in the district.

“If we refuse to accept the opinion, expert opinion of doctors and public health officials, what is the alternative?”

Broward said it had a smooth first day of school under its mandate, with only one student and one teacher refusing to wear a mask across the entire district.

Miami-Dade heard public comment from community members on both sides of the issue Wednesday.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade union, praised the decision.

“Today, we witnessed what democracy looks like despite being forced to withstand the vitriol of an anti-science group,” she said in a statement. “With the recommendations of medical experts, the CDC, parents, community allies, students, support professionals, and teachers, we were able to ensure that safety prevailed. We salute Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Dr. Marta Perez, Mrs. Perla Tabares-Hantman, Dr. Steve Gallon III, Mrs. Mari Tere Rojas, Mrs. Lucia Baez-Geller, and Ms. Luisa Santos for showing courage against threats and not allowing politics to enter and harm the safety of our school communities. We are excited about welcoming our students back into our classrooms while trying our best to keep them safe and helping them thrive through.”

Carvalho was critical of a meeting Tuesday where superintendents from Broward and Alachua counties were scolded by the state board of education for imposing their mask mandate policies that defy the orders of DeSantis.

Both of those counties face sanctions from the state.

“I am deeply hurt, not threatened or afraid, mainly as a result of witnessing and listening to a meeting that took place yesterday where two of my colleagues were in my opinion were ostracised, criticized and threatened for doing nothing more, nothing less than what they believe is right,” Carvalho said of the Tuesday meeting where the state board took aim at Broward and Alachua.

Carvalho said the reality of the COVID-19 surge in South Florida calls for a more protective policy from education leaders.

Alberto Carvalho is suggesting a mask mandate when Miami-Dade County Public Schools begin the new year next week. That's despite state leaders opposing mask mandates and seeking to punish districts like Broward that defy the governor's orders.

“I spoke to a teacher who happens to be the daughter of another teacher begging me to do the right thing as her mom is about to be intubated at Jackson South,” he said. “Yesterday I spoke to a mother of a child who died.”

“If the consequence at any point of my career is a threat to my own position it is OK,” he added.

The state’s Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said he wants to punish Broward County Public Schools for not following the governor’s order.

Last week, Corcoran threatened to withhold salaries of superintendents and school board members.

Corcoran said Wednesday morning that this is about the rule of law, not a debate about masks themselves.

“You have 67 counties. You have to a uniformed system,” Corcoran said. “What we’re doing is trying to get those kids the best possible education, and we know how to do that. If you empower the parents, if you have that choice.”

Corcoran wouldn’t speak specifically on possible sanctions for Broward County Public Schools, saying that would come out possibly later Wednesday or Thursday.

Time will tell if Miami-Dade finds itself in a similar situation.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava supported the decision the board made Wednesday, saying in a statement:

“Protecting our children must be a top priority as we continue to combat the serious threat of COVID-19. I applaud the Miami-Dade School Board and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho for following the science and putting the health and wellbeing of our children first. Wearing a mask is one of the simplest tools we have to stop the spread and protect the lives and livelihoods of those in our community — particularly for those not able to be vaccinated.

“I have faith that if we all do our part, if all those who are eligible get vaccinated, and if we continue to listen to medical experts, we can and we will overcome this pandemic.”

About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

Janine Stanwood joined Local 10 News in February 2004 as an assignment editor. She is now a general assignment reporter. Before moving to South Florida from her Washington home, Janine was the senior legislative correspondent for a United States senator on Capitol Hill.