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Judge backs Broward school board in firing teacher over mask dispute

Rose Wong for NPR

An administrative law judge Monday backed a decision by the Broward County School Board to fire a science teacher who refused last year to comply with a mask requirement aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Judge Cathy Sellers issued a 44-page ruling that concluded Piper High School teacher John Alvarez “engaged in gross insubordination by continued, intentional failure to obey numerous direct orders, reasonable in nature and given by and with proper authority.”

The dispute was rooted in an emergency policy that the school board approved at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year to require students, employees and other people to wear masks on school campuses. The policy was later approved as a regular policy.

Alvarez began clashing with school leaders about the policy in March 2021, according to Sellers’ ruling. As an example, the policy required wearing masks or maintaining a distance of six feet apart when people were outside on campuses. Alvarez did not wear a mask during a March 2021 fire drill and was accused of not maintaining a distance of six feet from other people, the ruling said.

As the clashes escalated, Alvarez received a written reprimand in May 2021. As teachers returned to campus in August 2021 to prepare for the 2021-2022 school year, Alvarez did not wear a mask to faculty meetings, drawing complaints from other teachers, Sellers wrote.

He subsequently received a five-day suspension without pay and reported to work in September 2021 without a mask, Sellers wrote. He was escorted off campus, and the school board in December moved forward with termination.

“By refusing to comply with Policy 2170 (the mask policy), respondent (Alvarez) potentially endangered not only his own health, but that of his students and his colleagues at Piper,” Sellers wrote, adding that his absence from campus “directly affected the students in his classes.”

Requiring masks in schools during the pandemic has been a highly controversial issue, with Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature last year barring mask mandates for students.

Sellers wrote that the Broward County school district, effective Nov. 1, 2021, changed its policy to drop a mask requirement in high schools. But because Alvarez’s “conduct which gave rise to the charges in these proceedings occurred before November 1, 2021, this policy change is inapplicable to his conduct at issue.”

Alvarez, who challenged his suspension and firing, “testified that, consistent with his training in natural sciences, he believes it is very important to ask questions and not blindly obey, or go along with, mandates,” Sellers wrote. He also disputed the effectiveness of masks.

Sellers wrote that Alvarez testified that “standard cloth and surgical masks are ineffective in stopping the spread of viruses because virus particles are too small to be stopped by these types of masks. He further testified that mask wearing does not reduce the incident of SARS-CoV-2 infection at statistically significant levels.”

But she wrote that the policy “was developed by district staff, in consultation with national, state, and local medical experts, including representatives of hospital districts in Broward County, and was consistent with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines available at that time.”

Under administrative law, Sellers’ ruling is a recommended order that will go back to the school board for final action.

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