PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — A major move by the Palm Beach County School Board to mandate face masks without giving students the ability to opt out is throwing more fuel on the fire of this ongoing debate over facial coverings in school.
On one side you have parents feeling relieved as they watch COVID-19 cases climb in schools. And on the other, many parents said they feel blindsided by Wednesday night's decision.
"For me and my family, it's a huge relief," said parent David Buchalter.
Last week, five-year-old Raya Buchalter walked into her first day of kindergarten. It was a milestone moment, but for mom and dad, a new wave of worry with coronavirus cases surging in the School District of Palm Beach County.
"I don't want my daughter to be wearing a mask in school if she doesn't have to, but at this point the risk is too great for her to be going without a mask," Buchalter said.
Buchalter's father died from COVID-19 in the first weeks of the pandemic.
Now, Buchalter said he feels more comfortable after the Palm Beach County School Board mandated facial coverings for students with no ability to opt out.
"Just to have the opportunity to send her and feel a lot more comfortable knowing that everyone is doing as much as they can to lessen the risk of the spread," Buchalter said.
But Eliza Lieberman has a fifth grader and second grader in the district. Her kids are among the more than 11,000 Palm Beach County public school students who have opted out of wearing a mask.
"I'm just really concerned about her migraines coming back and her being depressed," Lieberman said.
Lieberman said her kids struggled last year and now feels blindsided that the school board defied Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order, which gives parents the final say over whether their kids should be masked in school.
"I feel like we should always be given the option, teachers as well, to have a choice. We're just not given any choices right now," Lieberman said.
At Jupiter Community High School, roughly a third of the students have opted out of wearing a mask.
"We have no choice," said Palm Beach County School Board Vice Chair Karen Brill. "We must mandate the wearing of face masks throughout our district."
Some board members are concerned about disruptions the change could cause.
"I'm terrified for our principals right now what this is going to look like this week coming up," said School Board Member Erica Whitfield.
The only exceptions to the mask mandate 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.