When students return to Miami-Dade public school classrooms Monday, they’ll have to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 unless they bring a doctor’s note saying they have a medical condition exempting them from doing so.
After hearing for hours from more than 80 speakers and deliberating over the issue for an hour more, Miami-Dade Public School Board members voted overwhelmingly to mandate facial coverings for all students and faculty Wednesday.
The item authorizing Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to implement the mask mandate, which Board Vice Chair Steve Gallon III sponsored, passed 7-1 with support from Chair Perla Hantman and members Luisa Baez-Geller, Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, Marta Pérez, Maria Teresa “Mari Tere” Rojas and Luisa Santos.
Lubby Navarro was the sole no vote. Christi Fraga was absent.
The updated rules kick in Thursday for faculty, teachers, visitors, volunteer staff, and all others who enter any Miami-Dade public school facility, Carvalho said. They’ll apply to all students without medical clearance next week except for when they are eating and during socially distanced outdoor activities.
“Masks are important, but the full protection of our staff and our students relies and is based on the multi-layered approach specific to every one of (our) preventative measures,” he said, adding: “I take pride in the voice of a caring community, inclusive of our medical experts, that has advised this Board.”
Parents and students who prove a documented medical need will be granted non-mask-wearing accommodations.
The rules, which Carvalho read into the record, include:
— Mandatory masks for all students who aren’t eating or engaging in socially distanced outdoor activities, except for those with documented medical needs exempting them. Parents must request and return to schools an accommodation request form, which is to include the recommendation of a Florida licensed physician or health professional.
— Mandatory masks for all staff, visitors and volunteers at all times while indoors.
— Mandatory masks on school buses, on which there will be maximum distancing and frequent sanitization.
— Quarantine protocols for 10 days after exposure to someone who tests positive for the virus regardless of whether those exposed test positive immediately after.
— A three-foot social distancing rule “where appropriate” and six-foot distances when students are eating.
— Enhanced contact tracing.
— Maintaining classroom seating charts to more easily conduct contact investigations.
The rules will be revised weekly to reflect existing conditions, scientific information, and advice of health experts.
Miami-Dade Public Schools will continue to work on getting more students and faculty vaccinated, said Carvalho, who got an OK from the Board to develop a program to provide eligible students and staff with financial incentives to get vaccinated.
The Miami-Dade School Board vote came one day after the Florida Board of Education ruled that the school districts of Alachua and Broward counties, which adopted similar mask mandates, violated state law.
The state Board stopped short — for now — of sanctioning the two districts or withholding funding and administrator pay, a punitive measure Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration had threatened. Last week, President Joe Biden’s administration eased fears of that threat by offering to cover salaries and costs with federal relief funds.
Still, the mask mandate in Miami-Dade, as well as one the Hillsborough County School Board also passed Wednesday, invites the ire of officials in Tallahassee.
Navarro said that’s justifiable.
“My job up here as a constitutional officer of the state of Florida (isn’t) to make the laws that are dictated by Tallahassee, the Legislature,” she said. “My job is to follow the law. I agree we have to continue to evaluate the conditions … because things are changing, but the law has to be dictated to us.”
But with virus cases on the rise and guidance from the federal and local health community urging districts to implement mask measures, Rojas said, the school district must act now, even if it means defying state officials.
“The one thing I do not want to hear is that Miami-Dade County Public Schools did not consider the health and safety of our students and our workforce,” she said. “If one child is infected with a virus and succumbs to this horrible pandemic, how would we feel? Whether it’s one child or five or 10, one child is too many.”
Gallon, who accepted an amendment from Santos to remove the possibility of exemptions from mask-wearing for religious reasons, fired back at a flurry of accusations by the public that the School Board was stepping on parents’ rights by mandating facial coverings.
“Even though parents have most of the rights, they don’t have all of the rights, even in (the Parents’ Bill of Rights),” he said. “Who would dare argue against a parent’s right to choose? But such argument should not be circumscribed to one group of parents over another. Each has rights, and it is our duty at the local level to square these issues, end up in a place that serves the interests of our employees and students, and (in) this instance, save lives.”
The scores of parents, students and other interested parties who spoke to the Board were roughly split on the issue of whether masks should be mandated or not.
Opponents argued masks damage kids emotionally and physically. Some speakers protesting the rule said it is “Marxist,” caves to a “plan-demic” conspiracy and echoes classroom practices from communist Cuba.
Two parents whose children attend Centner Academy, which received nationwide attention in April for saying it would not employ vaccinated teachers, cited a debunked report from Germany claiming masks have “major negative impacts” on 68% of children studied.
Conversely, proponents of the mandate — including Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo, United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats, Miami-Dade Commission candidate Ibis Valdés and South Dade NAACP President Dwight Bullard, who served in both chambers of the Florida Legislature — argued it is a common-sense approach, backed by medical experts, to tamp down on a fast-spreading virus.
“We have laws for not drinking and driving. Imagine if now people could just say to an officer, ‘Well, I have freedom to drink and drive. I have freedom to not put a seatbelt on my kid. I have freedom to not put them in a seat if they’re babies. This is crazy,” Taddeo said. “We have laws and rules for a reason. Let’s use them to protect our kids.”
With about 334,000 students, Miami-Dade has the largest school district in Florida and the fourth-largest school district in the nation.