WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County's newly appointed interim superintendent of public schools suggested Thursday he's not ruling out a face mask mandate for the upcoming school year, which starts in less than two weeks.
Michael Burke, who officially took over for the retiring Dr. Donald Fennoy on Wednesday evening, said it's too early to say if the school district will impose a mask mandate for children and staff members, but he's watching the latest developments with the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant very intently.
"At the end of the day, I need to do what's best to protect our students and our staff," Burke said. "School's not that far off. We have a little time here. But it is a situation I'm closely monitoring, and it's one of my top priorities."
INTERVIEW WITH SUPERINTENDENT:
Less than 24 hours on the job, and Burke is already faced with critical and controversial decisions regarding the safety of students and school district employees before the 2021/22 academic year begins on Aug. 10.
Neighboring Broward County Public Schools decided late Wednesday to require all students, staff members, and visitors to wear facial coverings inside schools, regardless of their vaccination status.
However, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for weeks has vehemently expressed his negativity toward mask mandates in schools, even threatening legislative action to prevent school districts from imposing those requirements.
"If the governor passes a law, as a Constitutional officer, I'm not gonna break that law," Burke said. "But right now, it seems like it's left to the discretion of the local school districts."
Burke added he's taking into account the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which recently recommended all K-12 students -- vaccinated or not -- wear facial coverings in school.
"It's tough. Everyone has COVID fatigue," Burke said. "But we've gotta do what's smart and keep people safe, and hopefully bring this whole chapter to an end in the short-term and not have it linger for years to come."
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
Burke, who's been with the School District of Palm Beach County since 1998 and most recently served as its chief financial officer, said schools will continue doing enhanced cleaning and sanitation.
In addition, the district is spending almost $6 million to purchase portable HEPA air filters for every classroom and school clinic. Burke hopes to have all of those filters in place by late September, something he called a "Herculean" task.
With the school district planning a full return to in-classroom instruction in less than two weeks, Burke admitted that social distancing will be challenge, adding that spacing children out by even three feet may prove difficult.
Despite that, Burke feels the safety of students and staff members is in a better place compared to last school year, mainly because of the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine for anyone 12 and older.
"I feel like [the vaccine] is a great option that's out there to people, and it puts us in a far better position than we were last year," Burke said. "We know what works. We know what's important. We continue to follow the guidelines."
A self-described "non-traditional superintendent," Burke comes from a financial background and was in charge of managing the school district's nearly $4 billion budget.
As superintendent, he'll have nearly 180,000 students and 23,000 employees under his leadership, something he feels his business experience has prepared him for.
"I'm part of decisions that are made on how we use our resources, how we support our schools and our teachers," Burke said. "I'm used to managing large projects."
LEARN ABOUT SUPERINTENDENT'S BACKGROUND:
Burke said his top priorities are keeping everyone safe and making sure students have the most normal educational experience possible.
"I'm gonna value the perspective of our teachers and our principals greatly. And our community and our parents," Burke said. "I feel ready. I'm excited about the new year."
Burke will serve as superintendent until a successor is named and assumes the position. However, school board members said Burke will be eligible to apply for the job.
"I'm gonna give it my all. And if things are going well and the school board seems pleased with my work, then I just might [apply]," Burke said. "First things first. We need to get school open. And I'm just gonna put my head down, do my job, and let that take care of itself."
Under his approved contract, Burke's annual salary through June 30, 2022 will be $300,000.
If another candidate is chosen for the position permanently, Burke will go back to his role as chief financial officer at his former salary.
"I may not be the flashiest leader, but I'm a hard worker," Burke said. "I'm committed to this school district and I'm committed to the children of this community."
The Palm Beach County School Board voted Wednesday to move Fennoy to the chief of staff position within the school district, where he said he'll serve until Aug. 9, the day before the new school year starts.