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'Bring It!': Broward School Board Mandates Masks, Plans Legal Challenge Targeting DeSantis Ban

Yvonne Moniz, a special needs teacher at Challenger Elementary, right, along with Oakland Park Elementary third grade teacher Donna Sacco, second from right, and Oriole Elementary fourth grade teacher Yolanda Smith, center, tries to persuade anti-mask protester Heather Tanner that all students need to wear masks to protect the most vulnerable.
Amy Beth Bennett
/
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Yvonne Moniz, a special needs teacher at Challenger Elementary, right, along with Oakland Park Elementary third grade teacher Donna Sacco, second from right, and Oriole Elementary fourth grade teacher Yolanda Smith, center, tries to persuade anti-mask protester Heather Tanner that all students need to wear masks to protect the most vulnerable. This during a protest outside of a Broward County School Board meeting held in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, to discuss a mask mandate when school starts next week.

Broward County is one of a growing number of school districts that are pushing back against Gov. Ron DeSantis' rules prohibiting mask mandates in schools.

The Broward County school board on Tuesday voted again to require facial coverings in classrooms, even as the DeSantis administration has threatened to dock the pay of local education leaders who refuse to comply with his executive order banning mask mandates.

The board voted 8-1 to adopt new state rules from the departments of education and health governing how to reopen amid the worsening COVID-19 surge — with the exception of one provision that directs school districts to offer parents the opportunity to “opt out” their children from wearing masks.

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The board also approved a plan to hire an outside lawyer to challenge that rule.

“Being afraid that we're going to lose our job, be removed from office, fined, lose our salary — bring it! Bring it,” said school board member Nora Rupert. “Because when you put that out there, it makes me work harder for our school children and our families.”

Lori Alhadeff, who was elected to the board after her daughter Alyssa was killed in the 2018 Parkland school shooting, was the lone dissenting vote.

Union leaders representing tens of thousands of Broward County school district employees were among those asking board members to challenge DeSantis during Tuesday’s meeting.

“Our people are out in the front lines every day,” said Jim Silvernale, who works for the Federation of Public Employees. His union represents non-instructional employees, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and maintenance staff.

“They're concerned. They're scared. We want to see the mask mandate,” he said.

Broward has joined two other Florida school districts, so far — Alachua and Leon counties — that intend to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis. His office did not immediately return a request for comment.

This week, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote a letter to the superintendents in Alachua and Leon, telling them to allow parents to “opt out” or risk losing their salaries. Corcoran is the former Republican speaker of the Florida House, and he was DeSantis’ pick for the job overseeing public schools and community colleges statewide.

Meanwhile, the fight over masks in Florida schools is also playing out in court. Parents from Broward and Palm Beach counties are among those that signed on to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of DeSantis’ executive order and the new regulations that were adopted to implement it.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday afternoon, as the plaintiffs push for an injunction that would block the ban on mask mandates from being enforced, at least temporarily. Many students around the state go back to school this week.

Why even have elections if the governor is just going to dictate everything when you don't agree?
Broward School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood

Palm Beach County students started Tuesday, and those in the Florida Keys will return to classrooms Friday. Broward and Miami-Dade will follow in the coming weeks.

The lawsuit and others challenging DeSantis’ executive order argue it violates the provisions in the Florida Constitution that guarantee schools are safe and also that locally elected school board members have authority over them.

“The governor doesn't get to trump your decision,” state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, stressed to school board members during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. “This executive order that was issued — it is a gross overstep and abuse of power by the governor."

Broward school board chair Rosalind Osgood compared the governor’s maneuvering to voter suppression, since voters elected their school board members to represent their interests.

"The power of the voters in Broward County is totally being eliminated and ignored,” Osgood said. “Why even have elections if the governor is just going to dictate everything when you don't agree?"

Also Tuesday, two other South Florida school board members spoke out against DeSantis. Lucia Baez-Geller of Miami-Dade County and Dr. Debra Robinson of Palm Beach County participated in a statewide virtual press conference hosted by the Florida Democratic Party. School board seats are nonpartisan positions.

Each board member brings a unique perspective to this particular debate. Baez-Geller was a teacher for 15 years before leaving the classroom to run for school board. Robinson is a retired internal medicine specialist.

“All I'm asking for today is that the governor stop threatening us … and allow us to put this proven, time-tested, non-invasive measure to prevent illness and death in place,” Robinson said.

The statewide teachers' union also released the results of a new survey Tuesday, showing there are nearly 5,000 teaching vacancies throughout the state.

According to the Florida Education Association, that's nearly 40% more unfilled teacher positions than two years ago — before the pandemic.