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School District of Palm Beach County won't challenge governor on masks

Interim Superintendent Mike Burke says masks now 'strongly encouraged'
Interim Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke at 2021-22 back to school news conference
Posted at 12:58 PM, Aug 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-05 17:26:46-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The School District of Palm Beach County doesn't appear to be headed toward a legal showdown with Gov. Ron DeSantis over masks.

Interim Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke said Thursday that students will return to the classroom next week without a mask mandate amid a surge in COVID-19 cases throughout the state.

"Unfortunately, the situation, as of late, has kind of taken kind of a turn for the worse and we've had to kind of take a step back a little bit and make sure we double down on our safety measures," Burke said during a back-to-school news conference.

WATCH: Complete back-to-school news conference

School District of Palm Beach County holds 2021-22 back-to-school news conference

Burke said he had hoped it would be left to the districts to decide, "but that really changed last Friday with the governor's executive order."

He said DeSantis' executive order, coupled with the passage of the "Parents' Bill of Rights" law, "has really prohibited our district from enforcing a student facial covering requirement."

"After consulting with our office of general counsel and our colleagues around the state, I have no reason to believe, at this time, a legal challenge would be successful, and while I may question the governor's reasoning, there seems to be no question that the governor will do everything within his power to enforce his order," Burke said.

WATCH: Interim Superintendent Mike Burke discusses return to school

Interim Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke discusses return to school

That includes withholding state funding "and depriving us of the funds necessary to pay our employees," Burke said.

"So that's a pretty serious threat that we had to take into consideration," he continued.

Instead, students and staff will return to school with masks "strongly encouraged."

"And while there's no mandate, we really hope that people will make that decision thoughtfully and consider the environment we're in and consider not just the safety of themselves, but others," Burke said.

Visitors to school campuses, however, will be required to wear masks.

"So to our parents and guardians that may be attending an on-school event, we ask you to please comply with this requirement and wear a facial covering," Burke said.

Burke said there will be other measures in place to keep children safe, including social distancing "to the greatest extent possible," expanded outdoor dining and new air purifiers on campuses.

WATCH: Check out new air purifiers being used by Palm Beach County schools

Check out new air purifiers being used by Palm Beach County schools

"We've ordered 13,000 of these devices at a cost of nearly $6 million," Burke said.

Burke takes over for Dr. Donald Fennoy, who resigned last month amid criticism from some parents who opposed the district's mask mandate during the 2020-21 academic year.

Broward County has already elected to reinstate its mask mandate despite the governor's order, but it remains to be seen what ramifications will come of the decision.

The first day of the 2021-22 school year is Tuesday. Burke said there has been no discussion of delaying the start of the school year, as was the case last year.

WATCH: Interim Superintendent: 'I would send my child to school'

Interim Superintendent Mike Burke: 'I would send my child to school'

"We're starting on Aug. 10 as planned," he said.

Burke also said that he believes getting children back to brick-and-mortar schools is the right thing to do.

"As a parent, at this point, after a year-and-a-half of seeing our kids fall behind, I would send my child to school," he said. "I'd put the mask on them and tell them to wash their hands every chance they get and, you know, when you're outside, go ahead and take the mask off and play and be a kid, and let's get on with our lives."