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Palm Beach County School Board Mandate Face Masks, Defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Order

Screen grab of Palm Beach County Schools board member Marcia Andrews speaking during a meeting
Screen grab of Palm Beach County Schools board member Marcia Andrews speaking during a meeting

The Palm Beach County School Board voted 6-1 late last night to mandate face masks with no parental opt-out unless students have a critical medical exemption — a simple doctor's note won't cut it.

Under the new policy, medical exemptions are only approved for students who meet federal disability laws. In a reversal, the new COVID-19 protocol defies Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that bans mask mandates.

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The decision was made two days after Palm Beach County declared a state of emergency amid COVID-19 surge.

“But I won't be able to rest at night if some kid dies and I didn't do what I was supposed to do,” said school board member Marcia Andrews, who represents district 6.

“I worked in this district for a long time. I got to protect everybody. And when you wear the mask, it's not just for protecting you, it's for protecting the other people.”

The district's revised policy follows school boards in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, and Alachua counties that also defied DeSantis’ order. The governor, and Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, warned school districts found violating the governor’s mask order could face sanctions and withholding of funds from districts.

The Florida Board of Education already took formal steps to punish the Broward County school district.

In the previous policy, a parent or guardian in Palm Beach County had to send a letter to their child's school to have their student opt out of wearing a facial covering.

Out of the 167,000 students in the district, more than 11,000 students used the previous provision to go maskless — meaning an overwhelming majority of students did not use the previous opt-out provision.

School board member Erica Whitfield, who represents district 4, was worried about how the district could enforce the rules for the more than 11,000 students who must adjust to the new mask policy.

If students violate the new rules, according to the school district's general counsel Shawn Bernard, even discipline could present a "legal quagmire."

Interim Superintendent Michael Burke said refusal to wear the mask, according to the existing code of conduct, "would be considered insubordination" and a level-one offense.

Staff can start off by giving a warning or reminder to maskless students or reach out to parents to encourage student mask use. If the mask violations escalate, then harsher disciplinary actions could include in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, nearly 830 students, and more than 100 school employees, have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks of school. Those numbers complicated quarantine efforts, where hundreds of students were sent home.

The new mask policy is expected to take effect Monday.

“The current situation in Palm Beach County right now is dire. COVID cases are rising. People are dying. Palm Beach County is now in a state of emergency with hospitals at full capacity across the county and close to a 20 [percent] COVID positivity rate,” said Karen Brill, the school board's vice chair.

“All of us have received hundreds of phone calls and emails from parents pleading with us to keep their children safe by mandating face masks for all students and employees.”

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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