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Broward Schools Mandate Masks Despite Expecting 'Trouble' From DeSantis

A group of mask opponents speak outside a Broward County School Board meeting on Wednesday.
A group of mask opponents speak outside a Broward County School Board meeting on Wednesday.

The Broward County School Board is defying 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 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,” DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw wrote in the email.

DeSantis 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 discussion during which a panelist equated masking to “child abuse.”

Broward 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.

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,” board member Donna Korn said during the Wednesday meeting. "There are too many other things that 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 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 children, 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 younger than 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines.

Board member Debbi Hixon said people have accused the CDC of “flip- flopping” on mask recommendations, since the agency said two months ago that 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 they want masks to be mandated.

Raymond Adderly is senior class president at Fort Lauderdale High School and the 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 Taravella High 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,” Pushaw wrote.

School board members agreed to reconsider the policy around Labor Day (Sept. 6), in hopes that COVID-19 conditions will have improved and the mandate could be lifted.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.