Palm Beach County School Board 'will stand together' on mask mandate, chairman says

School board may legally challenge governor's executive order on facial coverings
Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri speaks to WPTV on Aug. 24, 2021.jpg
Posted at 5:00 AM, Aug 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-25 10:36:14-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday will discuss whether to file a legal challenge against Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order and emergency rules regarding face masks in schools.

It comes one week after board members voted to make facial coverings mandatory for K-12 students inside school buildings and on school district transportation with no ability to opt out.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education

"If we get the same type of letter that Broward or Alachua got, we certainly will stand together," School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri told WPTV. "I can’t foresee any of my colleagues on the board changing their minds at this point."

Standing firm on face masks, Barbieri said that while the school board has not heard from the Florida Department of Education yet, he expects it's coming soon.

"I believe we should challenge the executive order," Barbieri said. "Not that I personally want to defy the governor. It's not a case of that at all. It's just that we seem to be on different pages as how to best protect the children and staff in our school district."

Last month, DeSantis issued an emergency directive which gives parents the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.

Palm Beach County and at least seven other school districts throughout the state have violated that order by imposing universal facial covering mandates with no opt-out provisions.

Just 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 executive order or have the salaries of certain school board members cut.

Both districts refused to concede and said they're not changing their mandates.

"We anticipate that we will get the same type of letter that Broward and Alachua received," Barbieri said. "I’m hoping that at some point [DeSantis] recognizes that we have a serious concern here because the pandemic has escalated. And since he has taken away any of our opportunities to do any kind of teaching the children at home, we really have no choice but to make the schools absolutely as positively safe as possible to keep the kids in our classrooms."

Right now, Barbieri said that protection involves every strategy possible, including mandatory face masks.

"Most of the infections on our campuses, they are coming onto our campuses," Barbieri said. "Currently, we have no evidence that there’s been any transmittal on our campus from one person to another. But that may change as time goes on."

According to the latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, there have been 1,775 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, including 1,556 students and 219 employees.

As of Monday, 4,384 students have been told to stay home because of possible exposure to COVID-19.

Superintendent Michael Burke on Tuesday stood by the school board's difficult decision, looking for any way to slow the spread of COVID-19.

"We are seeing children in the pediatric wards of our hospitals, and [school board members] had to do what they felt was right and are on the side of safety for our kids," Burke said. "We're not doing this to be vindictive or harsh. We're just trying to keep everyone safe."


Palm Beach County superintendent talks COVID-19 cases

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The School District of Palm Beach County broke a record Monday with 303 student COVID-19 cases reported in one day. Barbieri worries how long this current rate is sustainable.

"It's obvious we have a serious situation on our hands," Barbieri said. "We have principals out, we have teachers out, certainly we have students out. At some point, if this doesn’t get under control, we’re not going to have enough teachers and principals to run our school system. So it's important we get it under control as soon as possible."

The Palm Beach County School Board is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Board members will also discuss medical exemptions to the school district's face mask mandate, as well as eliminating recorded comments at board meetings.