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Mental health and mask changes in Broward Schools, plus Jupiter's town manager resigns after controversy

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
Chris O'Meara/AP
In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla.

Broward Public Schools changes mask requirements for high school students as the U.S. Dept. of Education files a legal complaint against the Florida Dept. of Education for withholding funds over the county's mask mandate. Plus, students' mental health, a scandal in Jupiter local government and the dangers of driving the Overseas Highway.

The fight over masks in schools continues — and gets more complicated — between school boards, teachers and parents.

The Broward County School Board voted this week to encourage — but make masks optional — for high school students.

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"We're trying to follow science and move back to a sense of normalcy as much as we can. You can't just go for mandating masks to having it be optional for everyone, when you still have a large segment of our population as far as our kids that don't have access to vaccines," said Dr. Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward School Board.

Broward's decision comes after the school board said it would reconsider its mask requirement for all students once the county met two thresholds: a 66% COVID-19 vaccination rate and a 3% or lower positivity rate for 10 consecutive days. And that happened: 82% of people eligible have been vaccinated in Broward.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools may also start to loosen its mask rules as soon as early November, if certain thresholds are met, according to The Miami Herald.

Broward's change in rules comes just as the U.S. Dept. of Education has now filed a legal complaint against the Florida Dept. of Education for withholding funds over the district's mask mandate.

"We don't personally, as a school, want to be drawn in the middle of a battle with the state and the federal government. However, we do appreciate the support from the federal government, and we wish that we could work with the state in a way that we build relationships," Osgood said.

After masks, Osgood stayed on the program to talk about the the rise in children experiencing mental health crises. Mental health experts in South Florida, and around the country, are sounding the alarm.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between March and October 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department visits increased 24% for children ages 5 to 11 and 31% for children ages 12 to 17 when compared to 2019.

"We have a Talk App that's located on all students [sic] portals where they can request mental health services or report abuse... Many of our students have lost loved ones or multiple loved ones due to COVID... We cannot just expect our children to take a licking and keep kicking. We have to allow them to pause for the healing that's necessary," Osgood said about the district's investment in mental health resources, especially since the shooting in 2018.

She cited the recent murder of a Miramar High School student by three of his classmates.

"The kids that look like they're having it, OK, that are making good grades — they're not OK. We should be in alarm right now trying to talk to our kids and understand what's going on with their thinking and their mental health," she said. "We have done a significant leveling up, and that's why I'm saying to you that it takes the community to help us, parents to help us. We can only do so much at school."

Stephanie De La Cruz joined us for this conversation. She's a licensed mental health counselor at the Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach County.

"As the statistics showed, there was a rise prior to the pandemic, and we're seeing that they're just increasing with what has happened in the last 18 months," De La Cruz said.

"So I think it definitely is a combination of the challenges that they're facing within their households. You know, there was a lot of restructuring because of the pandemic in terms of what the family looked like, what the roles were, schooling," she said. "There's definitely been an increase in frequency and severity of the anxiety and depression that we're seeing in very young children and also their caregivers. And so we know that if their caregivers are struggling with these emotional difficulties, that that's going to be really challenging for the children as well."

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Jupiter's Town Manager Resigns After Pressure

Local governments and their officials have had their fair share of controversies in city and town halls across South Florida over the years.

Jupiter’s Town Manager, Matt Benoit, was in charge of managing the town and its more than 350 employees.

Benoit resigned this week — after several weeks of mounting pressure from former employees and members of the Jupiter Police Department calling for his dismissal.

People who worked closely with Benoit have come forward saying he created a hostile work environment, where people were afraid to speak up. Police officers claim he didn’t properly compensate them for overtime.

Katherine Kokal covers northern Palm Beach County for The Palm Beach Post and reported closely on this story.

"There are kind of two branches of employees that have been publicly and privately expressing concerns with his management. One is members of the Jupiter Police Department, as well as their family members and supporters — as well as other town staff members," Kokal said. "The concerns are kind of the same, though, so the police officers are saying that he understaffed the department, that he cut training opportunities both physical and outside of work, and that in general, he treated employees, including the police chief, with disrespect. Those concerns are kind of echoed by the town staff members. They say that he didn't treat them respectfully and made the town of Jupiter kind of a difficult place to work."

Kokal detailed accusations against Benoit, of cursing at staff and yelling at people in front of their colleagues.

"Benoit hasn't responded to any of my requests for comment on those allegations, and he also hasn't responded publicly in any way," Kokal said. "So all of those details are kind of being thrown at him, and he's he's choosing not to address them."

Benoit's resignation is effective Nov. 8.

Beautiful danger

The Overseas Highway is, well, good at testing your patience. And your safety. The road is the main way people and goods get around in the Keys.

Monroe County Commissioner David Rice recently put the role of the Overseas Highway to the region this way:

"It is our lifeline. It is our supply route. The entire Keys orients around that  highway. It is truly the only way to get from point a to point b," he said.

Monroe County officials have been working on a traffic master plan to hopefully, fix at least some of the issues. The county will reveal the details next week.

WLRN Keys Reporter Nancy Klingener and David Goodhue, reporter covering the Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald, talked about the dangers of the road, what needs to be done — and what outcomes residents want to see in the new master plan.

"I think it's going to be really interesting to see if they can find ways to address the real bottlenecks in Islamorada, on Plantation Key at the northern end of Islamorada, where the highway narrows down from four lanes to two as you're coming south — what they can do there — because the people in the Upper Keys really are having a tough time, especially on weekends," Klingener said. "dI have had friends tell me that they basically feel housebound on weekends, that they just can't go out and that's that's no way to live, you know?"

Goodhue echoed that people distracted by the beautiful vistas can cause delays for hours.

"If anything holds up traffic anywhere along the island chain, it backs up for miles in either direction, whether that be a traffic accident, accident, one car or not, truck not keeping up with traffic or an event along the highway. That can really disrupt things...it seems like it's gotten worse in some aspects," Goodhue said.

Goodhue recently worked with Miami Herald Key West reporter, Gwen Filosa, on a deep dive into the Overseas Highway and its problems.

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Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.