School districts’ masks rebellion continues to spread, despite state’s threats

Palm Beach makes it five districts, with Sarasota County in the wings

By: - August 19, 2021 1:29 pm

The Palm Beach County School Board adopted a mask policy that only allows students to opt out for a medical reason, joining four other school districts defying the DeSantis administration. Source: Screenshot/ Palm Beach County School District YouTube channel

Defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis policy on masks for school children has now spread to five school districts, including some of Florida’s largest, as the state experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Nearing midnight Wednesday evening, the Palm Beach County school board voted, 6-1, to require masks for all students except those with documented medical exemptions. The district previously had adopted a mask mandate that allowed parents to opt-out regardless of reason.

“I could not look myself in the mirror any longer and say that I am doing everything I can to make my schools safe,” Karen Brill, vice chair of the board, said. The new mask policy takes effect on Monday.

Palm Beach joins the school districts of Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties, which voted Wednesday to implement mask policies that only allow a medical opt-out, plus the Alachua and Broward districts, which had already taken the same step.

The Sarasota County school board has scheduled an emergency meeting Friday to discuss its mask policy.

The emergency meeting in Palm Beach started at 5 p.m. and went on until almost midnight, filled with hours of public comments and deliberation from the board.

By the end of the meeting, six of the board members voted to adjust the policy. The one vote in opposition was cast by board member Barbara McQuinn.

Of concern is a battle between state and local authorities over how schools operate during a pandemic.

The DeSantis administration insists, despite medical advice to the contrary, that parents must be free to direct the “upbringing, education, and health care” of their students, including refusing for any reason to have their children wear face masks at school.

His position is enforced by his own executive order and an emergency rule from the Department of Health, citing the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights. The Health Department rule says that schools must let parents opt out of a mask mandate and does not mention the need for a medical reason.

But school districts are pushing back on those policies.

The Alachua and Broward districts have already been called before the State Board of Education. If found guilty of violating state law, they could face penalties including slashing the pay of superintendents and board members or removing them from their positions entirely.

However, the Biden administration has indicated that it will support school districts with such policies, issuing a memorandum Wednesday directing U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to “assess all available tools in taking action,” to ensure that “governors and other officials are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our nation’s children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations.”

Biden also instructed Cardona to ensure that governors and other officials  providing in-person learning without “compromising their health or the health of their families or communities.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.