WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Palm Beach County School Board voted Wednesday night to explore legal action against a highly controversial executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis regarding facial coverings in school.
After roughly four hours of heated public comment, board members voted unanimously to allow Shawn Bernard, the School District of Palm Beach County's general counsel, to work with outside attorneys to potentially file, join, collaborate, or intervene in legal challenges or lawsuits against the state.
The governor's directive, issued in late July, gives parents the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
However, Palm Beach County and at least nine other public school districts throughout Florida have violated that emergency order by imposing universal mask mandates for students without the ability to opt out.
Bernard on Wednesday said the Palm Beach County School Board's mask requirements fall within their Constitutional authority of providing a "safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."
The vote now gives Bernard the power to initiate legal action without immediate board approval.
"Of course, it is my intention to keep the board informed of any action taken before it is taken," Bernard said. "Over the next week, we may find that time is of the essence and there may not necessarily be an opportunity to bring it in time to the board."
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"I feel like it really is a wonderful thing to see other school districts with us," said School Board Member Erica Whitfield. "I'm gonna continue to push that there is an end in sight to this mask issue. I want it to be over, just as so many of our families want to."
Wednesday's vote came after hours of passionate public comment, much of which was critical of the school district's mask mandate.
Several people were removed from school board chambers by police. In one case, a man seated in the unmasked section of the building was led away in handcuffs after refusing to sit down.
During a virtual news conference earlier on Wednesday, School Board Member Alexandria Ayala, who represents District 2, said DeSantis "overstepped his Constitutional authority" by issuing his executive order.
"We were stripped of our ability to make decisions that protected our children and protected our employees," Ayala said. "Children are at higher risk during this pandemic without the ability to be vaccinated, and they are in close quarters given the high number of students back in schools. And we need to do everything we can to protect them."
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Last Friday, the Florida Department of Education sent warning letters to school districts in Broward and Alachua counties, giving them 48 hours to comply with the governor's directive or have the salaries of certain school board members cut.
Both districts have stood firm, saying their mask mandates will remain in place.
Ayala on Wednesday said the School District of Palm Beach County's general counsel told board members they should expect a similar letter from the state by the end of the week.
"What will be in it we're not yet certain of, given the stricter protocols we have under our mask mandate," Ayala said. "Our authority as school board members is very clear, and we will go to court, if necessary, to exercise that authority to keep students safe."
The U.S. Department of Education is standing by school districts that impose universal mask mandates, saying the Biden Administration is "ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff."
"At the end of the day, this is a public health issue," Ayala said. "But it's also an issue about local control. And it's an issue about our Constitutional responsibilities and rights as school board members to provide a safe environment for education, which is in our Constitution."
DeSantis has repeatedly argued the decision over face masks for students falls under the criteria of the newly passed Parents' Bill of Rights, which says "the state, any of its political subdivisions, any other governmental entity, or any other institution may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary."
Speaking in The Villages on Wednesday, DeSantis said no school district is "above the law."
"You can't go above the law and take away people's rights," DeSantis said. "And that's what they're doing. They're taking away parents' rights. And there will be consequences."
The governor added the evidence shows that children are more like to get infected with COVID-19 in the community than inside classrooms.
"We think the data is very clear, and we think parents should be making those decisions," DeSantis said. "[Masks] should not be mandated. No government entity should force you to do that. That is your choice."
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There have been 2,041 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the School District of Palm Beach County since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, including 1,811 students and 230 employees.
As of Tuesday, 5,050 students have been told to stay home because of possible exposure to COVID-19.
School Board Vice Chair Karen Brill on Wednesday asked Bernard to review the school district's mask mandate to any see if there any "rare instances" -- not under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act -- where students may be able to be approved for a medical exemption from wearing a face mask.
Brill added that when students are given a medical exemption, she'd like for there to be an opportunity for them to wear another type of face covering, like a clear face shield.
"I would like all students, regardless, to wear some type of protection," Brill said. "So I want to make sure that when we exempt them, we're not just giving them a blanket exemption."