Concerned about the health of children, teachers and administrators — and not bowing to political pressure — Miami-Dade County School Board members Wednesday voted 7-1 to approve Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s recommendation to make masks mandatory for the area’s 392 public schools.
The amendment, which exempts only those with medically-endorsed conditions, will take place at the onset of the school year that begins Aug. 23, with weekly checks and updates from the School Board and medical experts regarding the COVID-19 numbers.
“I want to convey that strong currents and undercurrents can force reasonable people apart, but I think this Board has come together,” Carvalho said.
Wednesday’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools Board meeting drew an overflow crowd, which at times got boisterous, as well as supporters and protesters outside.
Community residents — parents, teachers, administrators, clergy members and even politicians — passionately implored the School Board “to do the right thing” and protect children, while others were equally passionate as to why a mask mandate — or as some said, keeping their kids “muzzled” — would bring more harm to their children, physically and developmentally, in the long run.
“What we want nothing more is seeing our children healthy, happy and back in school,” said School Board Chair Perla Tavares Hantman. “I always vote in the best interest of our staff and school district ... and guided by science and the local community. (The goal) is to protect our children and those who will educate them. One child lost is one too many.”
The mask mandate, which includes students, teachers, contractors, visitors and volunteers, goes into effect Thursday, with weekly monitoring of COVID-19 cases “until conditions change and if they improve,” Hantman said.
Village of Key Biscayne Michael Davey agreed with the decision. “Thank you @mdcps and @MiamiSup for standing up for the children, the science and reason,” Davey posted on Twitter. “No one wants to wear masks any longer than necessary, but all understand the rational basis for continuing to do so,” the post continued.
Wednesday’s decision follows Broward County and Alachua County, which have set forth their own mandatory mask regulations, regardless of vaccination status, in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order that no state or school district shall impose mask mandates. Those regulations come despite threats from DeSantis, who has indicated some high-level school personnel could lose their income while under such defiance. Florida’s Board of Education cited those two counties in Tuesday’s emergency meeting.
That alone is why Dr. Lubby Navarro cast the lone “nay” vote.
“I don’t make the laws (from the State Legislature), just enforce School Board policy,” she said. “(As a parent) I have a right to choose how I send my child to school ... I would have gone with the (original) opt-out. But now that it’s amended, it violates state law. It will be shameful for our superintendent to get on the stand and explain as to why we were breaking the law. I cannot support this amendment.”
Dr. Navarro did say if her child was of school-age today, “I would probably send my child to school with a mask. No one knows what’s better for a child than a parent.”
Carvalho, who received expert testimony from medical experts Monday, said no masks will be required for outdoor activities, such as recess; quarantines will start with 10 days; and there will be 3 feet of distance between workstations and 6 feet of space while eating, so more outdoor areas will likely be set aside during lunch periods. The mask mandate applies to all events sponsored by Miami-Dade Public Schools.
“No single protocol will (end this pandemic),” said Carvalho, who listed 10 pivotal steps, including hygiene and contact tracing. “Masks are important but it’s not the only thing. It’s like missing the forest for the trees.”
There was no word what the consequences would be if a child came to school without a mask or refused to wear one. Carvalho did say he was told by experts that the K95 and K99 masks are better than fabric masks, although two- to four-ply masks should be effective. He also said vaccinations for those 12 and older likely would be provided by the University of Miami and medical personnel at some point.
Carvalho also is in discussions with the Teachers Union about offering some degree of remote learning to those under quarantine. “It would be a shame if a student would not have any educational access,” he said.
The amendment for a mask mandate was changed slightly Wednesday when Dr. Steve Gallon III, the Vice Chair, scratched out an exclusion for those who could “opt out” for religious reasons. Board member Dr. Marta Perez said she could not vote for that portion of the exclusions, and the Board decided to keep only the medically endorsed written exclusion from a licensed Florida doctor or health professional in play.
“I realize how difficult this has been,” Perez said. “I want to thank the superintendent for his amazing professionalism, and thank the Board members. We’re all trying to do what’s in the best interest for everyone. I thank Dr. Gallon for this ... it gave the opportunity for the community to come (and voice their opinions).”
Faced with an increasing number of COVID-19 cases across Florida, Carvalho and a task force of medical and health experts Monday reached a unanimous decision that masks must be worn by everyone at school, including students, teachers, visitors and volunteers. Masks already are required on school buses in the county.
“Masks may not be 100% safe,” said Board member Mari Tere Rojas, “but I don’t want to hear that the Miami-Dade County School Board did not (do anything).”
Miami-Dade County is the largest school district in Florida and the fourth largest in the nation with more than 340,000 students from over 100 countries.
Public showed concern on both sides
One speaker from the community said she was representing parents who could not attend for various reasons and showed sheets of papers with 11,000 signatures in favor of mask mandates. “We do not want Dade County to become a super-spreader like we’re seeing in other areas,” she said.
Michael Haleigh, like others, wanted the board to reinstate the online program called My School Online (MSO). “Florida now has the highest number of pediatric cases of COVID (rising 700 percent from June to July). And that’s without sending children to school (yet),” he said.
State senator Annette Joan Taddeo-Goldstein, who represents District 40, encompassing Kendall and surrounding areas of the county, has a child in public school. “I’m here as a senator but also as a mom ... As a mom, I’m very scared,” she said. “When we all put our hands up (swearing in), we do it to uphold the constitution of our state, which says kids have a right to have a healthy environment when they go to school.”
Antonio White, the First Vice President at United Teachers of Dade, said: “The science and medical experts have spoken ... we hope you follow (your experts) over the political rhetoric that’s going on. ... No one’s individual rights trumps that of the masses.”
One speaker opposing the mask ruling said it would drop attendance at schools, thus putting teachers out of work in the process. She said it seems people only think the virus lives in classrooms, but she noted the masks come off immediately after school as kids get in their cars and play sports, and when teachers hit the gyms or bars.
Phyllis Compton, a former member of the school system, said, “As educators, we always follow the science,” she said, pointing out how science finally got a stranglehold on the polio epidemic. “Please don’t gamble with the lives of our children and teachers.”
One student who is entering her senior year at Coral Gables High said, “Students want to enjoy our final school year (in person) ... (but) I beg you not to let us choose between our safety and our education.”
Another student, 14, and his sister, a sixth-grader, said masks should be mandated, especially since those under 12 cannot be vaccinated.
Dr. Tobenna Ubu, a resident physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital, said protecting “young patients is the highest propriety.” Being on the front lines, he said it was sad to see children leaving the hospital on oxygen. “Taking basic steps as masking is the very basic thing we can do to help keep the children safe in this pandemic.”
Some speakers feared their children’s pre-existing medical conditions should take precedence in any ruling, while others were disappointed they had to withdraw their child from a physical school in order to enroll them in virtual school.
Other parents said they didn’t want their kids muzzled, and some traced the wearing of masks to headaches, fatigue, bacteria, and breathing and behavioral problems for youngsters.
In other news, the board on Wednesday:
Discussed a monetary way to assist area teachers in the wake of the pandemic, especially since the $1,000 bonus to state teachers, submitted to the Biden Administration by DeSantis, was recently turned down.
Held a moment of silence to remember the people of Haiti, where last week’s earthquake has claimed more than 1,000 lives.
Recognized the work by Andrea Pita, a junior at the School for Advanced Studies (SAS) West Campus, who directed a community drive in which she and her mom collected 154 baskets valued at $8,000 for a program called Anxiety Kids at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. An honor roll student since first grade, Pita started her service after her brother, Sebastian, was diagnosed with anxiety and, later OCD, at age 8.
Honored Mark Zaher, who is retiring after 36 years in the public school system. Jason Jenkins, the Miami Dolphins’ Senior Vice President of Communications and Community Affairs, recognized his accomplishments of teaming with the NFL team, giving him a Dan Marino autographed ball and a personalized jersey with the No. 36 “in case Coach Brian Flores needs someone to come in.”
Recognized Andres Asion, who started the Andres Asion Foundation to help the less fortunate. “His advocacy to help the community ... fueled the fire (for others to help, especially with grocery store giveaways). You embody that spirit of community service,” said Lubby Navarro.
The next School Board meeting takes place Sept. 9.
To watch the entire Wednesday School Board meeting, click here.