WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dozens of parents rallied on Monday against the School District of Palm Beach County's new universal face mask mandate for students.
The large group gathered outside school district headquarters on Forest Hill Boulevard in West Palm Beach, holding signs that read "Parent Choice" and "Unmask My Kids' Smile."
At least four school district police officers were standing by to ensure the protest stayed peaceful. Several of the demonstrators called for Superintendent Michael Burke to come out and speak to them.
"I should have the choice to do what I need to do or what my kids need to do for their health, and wearing a mask all day long is not normal," one parent said.
WATCH VIDEO OF PROTEST:
All public school students in Palm Beach County are now required to wear facial coverings while inside school buildings and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out.
School board members approved the new mandate last week, defying Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order in light of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in the community and in schools.
The demonstrators on Monday accused the school district of breaking state law by enforcing a universal mask mandate for students.
A dozen or so parents rally outside PBC School District Headquarters this morning. Holding up signs and chanting along Forest Hill Blvd. Clearly upset with the @pbcsd board approving the mandatory mask mandate and taking away the opt out option. @WPTV pic.twitter.com/DoNgnMFJ2W— Eric Pasquarelli (@PhotogEricP) August 23, 2021
According to the most recent numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, there have been 1,425 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, with 1,234 of them students.
Jupiter High School has the most student cases with 40. That school also had the highest number of students previously opting out of the mask requirement at about 1,000. That's one-third of the school's student body.
Those opt-out letters will no longer be honored, and all students will be expected to follow the new policy, according to the district.
In a letter to parents, school district leaders outlined the next steps if a student needs a special exemption from wearing a facial covering.
"The only exception to this facial covering requirement is for students with ADA or 504 Plan accommodations. If your child requires an exemption from the mask requirement due to a documented disability, please submit a request for an accommodation along with a note from a treating licensed medical physician documenting the need for the requested accommodation to the school’s 504 coordinator.
As our goal is to meet the individual needs of all students, once letters are received by the school from the child’s treating physician, the District will coordinate a meeting as soon as possible to consider a facial covering exemption as an accommodation based on the medical information provided and any additional relevant information. Our goal is to complete this process and meet with parents and guardians in a timely manner.
If your child has an exemption from wearing a facial covering from the 2020-2021 school year on record, the students will remain eligible for the exemption for the 2021-2022 school year."
A school district spokeswoman said that if a student refuses to wear a mask in school, they are supposed by given one by a school staff member, and their parent may be called.
"It’s actually been pretty good. Most people are really wearing the masks," said Palm Beach County School Board Member Erica Whitfield.
Whitfield on Monday gave WPTV her assessment of the first day of the mask mandate for the new school year.
"A few parents within schools have sent their children and asked them not to wear masks. So with those kids we're just doing our best to reinforce some positive behaviors and ask them to do the mask where they can," Whitfield said.
Whitfield added that most students and parents are getting the message, and if they’re not, they’re hearing from the district.
"They are doing their best to try and have a conversation," Whitfield said. "They’ll be reaching out to parents today, just to have that conversation with families to say, please encourage your children to wear masks."
Palm Beach County public schools have joined a number of Florida school districts in going against a ban from DeSantis on the mandates and facing a threat from Tallahassee to withhold funding as a punishment.
"We’re getting a lot of that support from the community throughout the state saying this is the right thing to do," Whitfield said. "So I’m really hopeful the governor will change his mind and understand we’re not trying to do anything against the state."