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Broward School Board Mandates Masks For New School Year, Despite Expecting 'Trouble' From DeSantis

Anti-mask protesters demonstrate outside a Broward School Board meeting with one holding a sign saying that anxiety fear and depression are the real pandemic and opposing a mask mandate
Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel
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A group of mask opponents speak outside a Broward County School Board meeting on Wednesday.

The Broward County school board is defying Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis by requiring masks, triggering yet another battle between local elected officials and state leaders over COVID-19 policy.

Masks will be mandatory in Broward County public schools when students and teachers return to classrooms next month, according to a Wednesday decision from the school board that sets up a potential conflict with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In an email to WLRN, a spokesperson for DeSantis doubled down on the governor's recent threat to call a special legislative session to stop any school district from imposing mask mandates.

“The Governor’s position on this has not changed,” wrote DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw in the email.

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DeSantis, considered a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, is selling anti-mask merchandise in support of his gubernatorial re-election campaign next year. In recent days, he referred to masks as “muzzles” and hosted a private discussion during which a panelist equated masking to “child abuse.”

Broward County school board members now find themselves in a similar position to where they were last year: facing political pressure as they make critical decisions about reopening schools during a pandemic.

Broward school board members are no strangers to clashes with DeSantis, and they are not naive about the battle they are likely inviting with this decision.

“I am not looking for us to get ourselves in trouble over this mask issue,” said school board member Donna Korn, during a Wednesday meeting. "There are too many other things that the the state has highlighted this district for."

Korn is likely referring to conflicts regarding not only COVID-19 but also the district's response to the Parkland school shooting in 2018.

And it's not just DeSantis who has made noise about the mask mandate. The Broward school board meeting on the mask policy had been slated for Tuesday but had to be rescheduled after a group of anti-mask protesters showed up and refused to wear facial coverings.

During Wednesday's meeting, several parents spoke in opposition to a mask mandate, complaining that facial coverings make it difficult for their children to breathe, learn and socialize.

Korn and another board member, Lori Alhadeff, said initially they expected masks to be optional in the fall. But they changed their minds, as they watched COVID-19 rates climb in South Florida.

“I really wanted to start this school year as normal as possible,” said Alhadeff, “and a few weeks ago, I thought that we were in a position to go back to school without wearing masks and giving parents a choice.

“But now with COVID soaring, and the Delta variant, a lot has changed,” she said.

Alhadeff wants the district to urge parents to vaccinate their kids, perhaps even offering incentives.

Another factor that has changed the debate around masks — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance on Tuesday recommending that even vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors. Further, the public health agency encouraged everyone in schools to wear masks, especially since children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines.

School board member Debbi Hixon said people have accused the CDC of “flip flopping” on mask recommendations, since the agency said two months ago vaccinated people do not have to wear masks indoors in most scenarios.

“They weren't flip flopping. They're using data and facts to make the best decisions for the time,” said Hixon. "And I think that we have to do the same thing.”

Hixon, who taught in Broward schools for decades before being elected to the school board last year, said she’s heard from many teachers and administrators who say want masks to be mandated.

Raymond Adderly is senior class president at Fort Lauderdale High School and the Broward County school board’s student advisor. He said he supports the mask mandate, and he cautioned students against thinking they are invincible to the virus. He mentioned a 15-year-old student at J.P. Taravella High School who is in the hospital fighting a severe case of COVID-19.

“Although masks are super inconvenient, I'd rather see students have an inconvenience with breathing, wearing a mask — than having an inconvenience breathing on a ventilator,” Adderly said.

Pushaw, the DeSantis spokeswoman, said the governor wants parents to decide.

“At the end of the day, the Governor trusts parents to weigh the risks and benefits and make the best choices for their own kids,” wrote Pushaw in an email.

School board members agreed to reconsider the policy around Labor Day, in hopes that COVID-19 conditions will have improved, and the mandate could be lifted.