WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A critical deadline has come and gone, and the School District of Palm Beach County is standing firm behind its universal mask mandate for students.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had given the school district until 5 p.m. Wednesday to comply with an emergency order issued in early August that gives parents the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
In a warning letter sent to Superintendent Michael Burke and the Palm Beach County School Board last Friday, Corcoran said if the district doesn't change its sweeping mandate, he'll recommend that the Florida Department of Education withhold the salaries of school board members.
Burke sent a written response to Corcoran on Wednesday, saying the district has "not acted inconsistently" with the state's emergency rule, adding that "a face-covering policy was necessary in response to the dramatically and rapidly worsening state of the spread of COVID-19 as a result of the Delta variant."
"The Policy is reasonable and there is not a less restrictive means in light of the lack of available vaccines for the majority of school-aged students," Burke wrote.
Burke said there has been an "explosion of COVID-19 cases" in the School District of Palm Beach County during 2021/22 academic year, and "cases have continued to soar" over the last three weeks.
All K-12 Palm Beach County public school students are currently required to wear facial coverings inside school buildings and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out. The only exceptions are for children with certain medical conditions.
The policy is in place for at least 90 days, but can be modified before then.
State education leaders have argued that Palm Beach County's sweeping mask mandate is a direct violation of the newly passed Parents' Bill of Rights, which gives parents and guardians general control over a child's education, health, and well-being.
"With respect to Floridians' constitutional freedoms, there has been no determination that has concluded a face-covering requirement for students is unconstitutional," Burke wrote in his response letter. "Nothing in the Parents' Bill of Rights prohibits a face-covering requirement."
Burke said the Parents' Bill of Rights gives the school board the power to take action that is "reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means."
READ SUPERINTENDENT'S RESPONSE:
The state's warning letter was sent to Palm Beach County school leaders on Friday, just before a Leon County judge verbally declared the state cannot punish local school districts for enacting universal mask mandates for students.
Despite that ruling, the Florida Department of Education has already started withholding the salaries of school board members in Broward and Alachua counties for their mask requirements.
Speaking in Viera on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court of Florida has not officially signed his order into law yet, so any sanctions from the state are perfectly legal at this point.
"There have been some local authorities who have violated the law and have basically taken the decision-making authority out of the hands of parents," DeSantis said. "At the end of the day, just honoring parents' rights and parents making these decisions is really significant."
Once Cooper does officially issue his written order, however, it's unclear if the state will continue to pursue sanctions against school officials.
"We'll see what happens with this written order and then see what happens with the appeal. But I'm very confident," DeSantis said. "Of course, we will appeal immediately. We'll seek a stay of that."
The U.S. Education Department said it's monitoring the legal situation in Florida and has promised to use federal CARES Act funding to replenish the salaries of any school officials who are punished by DeSantis and the state.
"If the federal government wants to bail out union-backed politicians with tax dollars, that is not a good use to bail out politicians," DeSantis said.
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SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso addressed school board members on Wednesday, delivering encouraging news that roughly 50% of 12-to-19-year-olds in Palm Beach County are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, which represents the largest increase in vaccinations among any age group.
"They have had the highest peak," Alonso said. "I'm very happy for that because that means these are the kids you've got in school, and that's good that we're getting there."
Alonso added that 49% of new COVID-19 cases this week in Palm Beach County (for residents 18 and under) are among children between the ages of five and 12.
39% of new cases are for children between 13 and 18, and 12% are among children four and under.
"These numbers have dramatically gone up," Alonso said. "It makes sense, right, that you're having the problem at school because you've got a lot of these kids that are actual cases."
According to the latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, there have been 3,470 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, including 2,985 students and 485 employees.
As of Tuesday, 4,674 students have been told to stay home because of possible exposure to COVID-19.
Alonso said the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 now accounts for 99.1% of all variant cases in the U.S. However, she assured school board members and the public that the current coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are all effective.
"The vaccine is doing it's job. Why? Because the vaccine's job is to keep you out of the hospital and not dying," Alonso said. "The vaccine is working exactly the way it's supposed to work."
Alonso added that Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine will likely be approved for 5-to-11-year-old children sometime in late fall or early winter.
"This continues to be a pandemic of unvaccinated people," Alonso said. "You don't have to be one of those people in the hospital. Please, get vaccinated for you, your family, and for the rest of your community."
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To increase vaccinations among students, starting next week the Health Care District of Palm Beach County will take its mobile vaccination unit to two public schools every day for at least the next three weeks.
"We hit all high schools, as well as middle schools and elementary schools," said Dr. Belma Andrić, the chief medical officer and vice president and executive director of clinic services for the Health Care District. "We're just making it very, very convenient for people who may be too busy. Life is busy these days for parents who have multiple kids."
The shots will be voluntary for any eligible students and staff members, Andrić said.
The Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday evening also approved an agreement with the Florida Department of Health to open a pair of mass antigen testing locations on school district property for students, their families, and district employees
The testing sites would be at the Chuck Shaw Technical Education Center, located at 4260 Westgate Avenue in West Palm Beach, as well as the West Technical Education Center, located at 2625 Northwest 16th Street in Belle Glade.
The sites would be able to conduct up to 1,000 COVID-19 rapid antigen tests, and more testing sites could be added, if needed.