FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Broward County Public Schools started the first day of the 2021-22 school year on Wednesday with a universal indoor face mask mandate. Interim Superintendent Vickie L. Cartwright said only one student and one teacher in the entire district refused to wear a mask.
During a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Center in Fort Lauderdale, Cartwright said the district had received 11 medical opt-out requests. She said the district welcomed nearly 258,000 students back to school.
“This is something that is needed in order to ensure that we keep our students in our schools,” Cartwright said.
BCPS, the sixth-largest school district in the nation and the second-largest in the state, implemented the mandate despite opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a July 30th executive order to protect “parents’ freedom” to opt-out of face mask mandates.
“We do believe that we are in compliance,” Cartwright said, adding there is “a process in place” for parents who need to opt out.
The State Board of Education authorized Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to issue penalties against school districts with face mask mandates. Cartwright said the state has the ability to remove school board members and issue financial sanctions, but the conflict over the mandate at BCPS is not related to the Florida Department of Education.
“The rule that they are stating that we are violating is from the department of health,” Cartwright said.
Cartwright also said the state can take away funding from the districts in the amount of the salary, but cannot actually stop the payments. She said school board members don’t want to go against DeSantis; they are exercising “their duty” to provide “a safe environment” at BCPS.
“We have to have the autonomy to make decisions,” Cartwright said, adding school boar members “are exercising their right under the constitution and their duty to provide for a safe environment for the local school district.”
Before the first day of school even started, there were already 436 students and 191 BCPS employees in quarantine, Cartwright said.
The student enrollment has increased in high schools and decreased in middle and elementary schools, Cartwright said. She did not provide data to say how many students public schools had lost to charter schools, a publicly funded school that sometimes is managed under contract by for-profit educational management organizations.
“Broward County Public Schools students are back where they belong in class and on campus,” said Rosalind Osgood, the school board’s chair.
The State School Board of Education voted to turn a voucher program designed to help victims of bullying to cover the cost of a private education into a program to help parents who want to transfer their kids to a private school that allows them to opt-out of face masks.
Mental health support: Amid the stress of the coronavirus pandemic, Cartwright said there is a free app to help BCPS students to access mental health services in a confidential manner. The T.A.L.K. app icon appears on the personalized eLearning platform. She said only one student used it.
Job openings: The district needs more school drivers. There are job openings for bus operators and bus attendants. Cartwright said they hired 1,040 new teachers in preparation for this school year, and they are still recruiting teachers since there are 365 vacancies.