WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County's new superintendent of public schools said Tuesday that students who refuse to wear a mask in school could soon face punishments, including being isolated from the rest of their classmates.
All K-12 students are now 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 sweeping mandate officially went into effect on Monday.
Superintendent Michael Burke told WPTV on Tuesday the transition has mostly been smooth and uneventful. There were a couple of high schools where about 30 to 40 students showed up to school without masks on Monday. Those students were all given a verbal warning and a mask to wear.
"We wanted to make sure that we had an opportunity to speak with the parent, advise them on the Student Code of Conduct, and then really encourage them, remind them of the benefits of wearing a facial covering," Burke said. "Take a positive, supportive approach to it before before we have to fall back on the Student Code of Conduct."
Burke added, however, if students continue to refuse to wear a mask, they could face disciplinary action, including being isolated from their class.
"Students have now been warned," Burke said. "If this continues, they could face discipline. They may have to be isolated. We may have to take additional measures to ensure compliance."
INTERVIEW WITH SUPERINTENDENT:
The mask mandate is in effect for 90 days, but school board members can reevaluate it before then.
"If we see conditions dramatically improve and [school board members] want to relax it, they can advise me to do so and I'd be happy to do that. I hope we have that opportunity," Burke said.
The Palm Beach County School Board is scheduled to hold a special meeting on Wednesday to discuss a potential legal challenge to Gov. Ron DeSantis' recent executive order which gives parents the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
At this point, the Florida Department of Education has not announced any potential punishments for the School District of Palm Beach County for violating the governor's directive.
"Our board made a courageous decision, and they did what they felt was right. It was not easy for them, I know. We take our state leaders seriously, and the Constitution and the laws," Burke said. "But in this situation, with the cases over 18% positivity in Palm Beach County, we are seeing children in the pediatric wards of our hospitals, [school board members] had to do what they felt was right and err on the side of safety and abundance of caution for our kids."
Despite protests from some parents against the mandate, South Florida infectious disease specialist Dr. Olayemi Osiyemi said masks do work and help control the spread of the virus.
"When masks were being worn, we saw the numbers go down. There's no question about it," Osiyemi said.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
After just two weeks of school, the School District of Palm Beach County already has roughly one-third of the total number of COVID-19 cases it had during all of last academic year.
Burke delivered that sobering statistic Tuesday morning during a back-to-school breakfast hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches.
"This year is the bigger challenge," Burke said. "This delta variant is really trying us. And it's trying our systems."
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.
Burke on Tuesday admitted the biggest challenge for the school district this year is manpower.
"It's keeping enough bus drivers, teachers, substitute teachers, and principals. We've had principals we've had to send home because they've been exposed or contracted COVID," Burke said. "So that's gonna be the real challenge is keeping people safe enough."
The superintendent encouraged all students who are 12 and older to get vaccinated against COVID-19, stressing that it will allow them to remain in the classroom and avoid quarantining if they're exposed to the coronavirus.
"If a student is 12 or older and they've had the vaccine and they're not showing any symptoms, we can avoid disrupting their learning and keep them in the classroom," Burke said.
WATCH SUPERINTENDENT'S COMMENTS:
The following interventions and progressive discipline will apply for students who refuse to wear a facial covering:
- Facial coverings will be offered to students who arrive at school without one.
- Non-compliance may include but is not limited to, the following in a progressive order of corrective strategies:
a. Conference with studentb. Conference with parent/guardian
c. Reiterate expectations and safety/health benefits
d. Loss of privileges (during school hours)
e. Loss of extra-curricular activities
f. Temporary removal from class
g. In-school suspension.
h. Out of school suspension.