Students across Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast returned to classrooms on Tuesday — some for the first time in more than a year — to start a new school year.
Facial coverings are mandatory for all students and staff members in the School District of Palm Beach County inside school buildings and on school district transportation. However, parents and guardians can opt their child out of that mask requirement.
"I wanted to do everything we could to keep people safe," Superintendent Michael Burke told WPTV on Tuesday. "I'm hopeful that a lot of folks are paying attention to the news and delta variant, and they'll just go ahead and wear the mask."
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Burke said he will re-evaluate the mask mandate every 30 days, and if COVID-19 conditions improve in our community, the school district will loosen the facial covering requirement.
"We want to get school open and we want to keep school open," Burke said. "Last year we were able to get through the whole school year without having to close any campus, and that's my goal again this year. I think it will be a challenge because of the rate of infection, virus spreading across our county."
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Burke spent Tuesday morning visiting the brand new Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, one of two new schools opening in Palm Beach County this year. The other is the Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton.
Our WPTV news crew said a majority of students at Washington Elementary School were wearing masks as they arrived on Tuesday morning.
Justin Katz, the president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, said the teacher's union plans to file an unfair labor charge against the School District of Palm Beach County because teachers are not allowed to opt out of the district's mask mandate.
"The district refused to Impact Bargain their changes to employee mask policies to allow an opt out for vaccinated teachers," Katz said in a written statement to WPTV. "I don't expect them to reconsider. So we will be filing an Unfair Labor Practice charge against them this week due to the refusal to abide collective bargaining rights in state law."
Katz added that teachers who refuse to wear masks in school could be suspended without pay or potentially terminated.
Burke said he's in communication with Katz and wants to keep the conversation open regarding face masks for staff members.
"There are some teachers concerned that feel like if they're vaccinated they should be able to remove the mask," Burke said. "My concern is that even vaccinated folks can spread the virus. So we're gonna have to work through that."
Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order that gives parents the final say over whether their children should wear masks in school.
DeSantis' office on Monday said the Florida Department of Education may withhold the salaries of superintendents and school board members if a school district violates that order.
However, Burke said he's confident the School District of Palm Beach County has complied with the emergency rules by providing an opt-out provision for students.
"There shouldn't be any reason to withhold our school board or my salary," Burke said. "We're in full compliance."
Inside a sixth grade social studies class at Conniston Middle School in West Palm Beach on Tuesday, Evelyn Roblero was back in the classroom with her friends, writing a poem and getting right to work.
"Last year, I was virtual and I missed going to school," Roblero said.
Like Roblero, more students were back in the hallways, walking with friends while switching classes and receiving a visit from Palm Beach County's new interim superintendent on the first day of school.
"We're gonna have all of our sports, our extracurricular activities," Burke said. "We want the kids engaged and we want to make sure they are doing OK."
With distance learning related to the COVID-19 pandemic no longer an option, all students are back at the district's 179 schools, and more than most are wearing masks with Florida seeing a sharp rise in coronavirus cases.
"We've really mapped everything out from the way the students enter the staircases. They use to go up and down," said Oscar Otero, the principal at Conniston Middle School. "Social distancing all the way through the use of masks."
Otero said the focus now for teachers is working to close the gap after many students fell behind since the beginning of the pandemic.
"Our work is really cut out for us as we drill down to each student and their performance and we map out sort of how we can get that student back on track," Otero said.
For students like Roblero, she said learning is easier and more enjoyable in-person.
"Here I feel like I can communicate with people more than on the computer and I can talk to them," Roblero said.
School districts in St. Lucie, Indian River, and Okeechobee counties also started the new academic year on Tuesday. Students in the Martin County School District will return to class on Wednesday.