WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a critical reversal, Palm Beach County School Board members voted late Wednesday night to not allow students to opt-out of wearing facial coverings inside schools and on school district transportation.
In a 6 to 1 vote at 11:30 p.m., the board amended the school district's COVID-19 protocols for students, mandating masks and removing a provision which allows "a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask."
The only exceptions will be for medical reasons, specifically students who are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, meaning a child has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a "major life activity" like learning.
Under the approved policy, a "treating licensed medical physician" must verify those students to be exempt from wearing facial coverings.
Superintendent Michael Burke said the new universal mask mandate will likely go into effect on Monday and will remain in place for 90 days.
"That gives us two days and the weekend to notify families and schools and try to support our principals with the implementation," Burke said.
In fully mandating masks, the Palm Beach County School Board appeared to directly defy a highly controversial executive order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 30 that gives parents the final say over whether their children should wear facial coverings in school.
The emergency order said school district COVID-19 protocols must "not violate parents' right under Florida law to make health care decisions for their minor children."
The Florida Board of Education on Tuesday voted to penalize school districts in Broward and Alachua counties for mandating masks with no opt-out provision. It's unclear what those penalties will be, but DeSantis' office has suggested the possibility of withholding the salaries of any superintendents or school board members who violate his executive order.
"I don’t want to see a kid die under my watch," said Palm Beach County School Board Member Marcia Andrews. "So I will take on whatever punishment may come my way if I can say I made a difference in saving children's lives."
School districts in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties voted Wednesday to universally mandate face coverings, with the only exemptions being for medical reasons.
The changes approved by the Palm Beach County School Board late Wednesday do not affect teachers, who are already required to wear masks without the ability to opt-out.
In a written statement to WPTV, Justin Katz, the president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, expressed his pleasure with the school board's decision, calling it the "safest route to go in."
"It was a good decision to further mitigate the spread of Covid and exposure quarantines on campuses.
CTA always maintained that the district had two choices: everyone wears a mask mandatory or everyone has a choice. No in-between.
The previous decision to have an opt out effectively rendered the mandate pointless.
The decision by the board last night fixes that problem and creates uniform guidelines for all students and employees.
Which given the current Delta variant situation, is clearly the safest route to go in."
- Justin Katz, President, Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association
Board members agreed to hold a special meeting next week to discuss whether the School District of Palm Beach County would be willing to join other school districts throughout the state to legally challenge the governor's emergency order.
Wednesday's marathon school board meeting -- which clocked in at nearly seven hours -- came at a time of rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases within Palm Beach County schools.
According to the latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, there have been 946 confirmed cases since the new academic year started on Aug. 10, including 827 students and 119 employees.
As of Wednesday, 3,472 students have been told to stay home because of possible exposure to COVID-19.
"The current situation in Palm Beach County is dire," said Vice Chair Karen Brill. "Cases are rising. People are dying. Palm Beach County is now in a state of emergency with hospitals at full capacity across the county."
The school district said 11,402 of the more than 164,000 students enrolled this school year have opted out of wearing masks.
School principals in Palm Beach County now face the daunting task of ensuring that all students are complaint with the newly passed mask mandate, something Burke and school board members admitted will be a challenge.
"I'm actually terrified for our principals right now," said Board Member Erica Whitfield. "I'm very worried for what their days are gonna look like in this week coming up."
Burke said students who refuse to abide by the new mask mandate will be in violation of the school district's Code of Conduct, meaning their punishments could range from a phone call to the student's parent or even suspension.
"If there was repeated incidents and refusal to wear the mask, that could escalate," Burke said. "That opens the door to more harsher discipline including in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension."
School Board Member Alexandria Ayala initiated the discussion and the motion to change the mask policy.
"This is a serious emergency that's posing an immediate danger and a threat. So I don't have time to wait or to allow people to exploit a medical opt-out which they will try to do. We need to be strong on this," Ayala said. "I think that I have made it pretty clear that I care about the safety of every child under our district more than anything else. I will protect that at all costs, in the face of bullying, in the face of threats to my position, in the face of funding, in the face of politics."
The Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday also approved a new policy for keeping students home from school during the coronavirus pandemic.
If a student is exposed to a COVID-positive case and they are asymptomatic, they can return to school after receiving a negative COVID-19 test at least four days after the date of exposure, or if the student is asymptomatic and seven days have passed since the date of exposure.
If a student tests positive for COVID-19 or is symptomatic following exposure to an infected individual, they can return to school after the student receives a negative COVID test and is asymptomatic, or 10 days have passed since the symptom onset or the positive test result, the student has had no fever for 24 hours, and the student's other symptoms are improving, or the student has received written permission from a health care provider to return to school.
The policy will also allow students who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as well as those who have had a prior COVID-19 infection (tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous 90 days) to return to class immediately.