PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Could the School District of Palm Beach County face any punishments after school board members voted late Wednesday night to implement a 90-day mandatory face mask policy in schools?
The new mask policy takes effect on Monday as confirmed COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County public schools are on track to breaking 1,000 in the first two weeks of the 2021/22 academic year.
The majority of school board members feel more can be done to protect students and staff and voted to make masks mandatory without the ability for students to opt out, even if it comes with consequences from the state.
There are more than 900 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County schools now and about 3,500 students in quarantine. With no option for distance learning, school board members feel they need to do more.
"We have tried our best to keep them safe and follow the rules from the state, but we’re in a place where this delta variant doesn’t care about the governor or the commissioner of education," said Board Member Marcia Andrews. "This is health and science and we’re all impacted."
Andrews, who represents District 6, understands the message coming down from the Florida Board of Education this week, explaining districts that disobey state law to keep masks optional could face a loss of funding, removal of school officials, go under review, and face further action.
"I'll take on whatever punishment that may come my way if I can say that I made a difference in saving children’s lives," Andrews said.
But what punishment may come down from the state is still to be seen. The governor’s office released a statement to WPTV on Thursday in response to the district’s vote, saying "the forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents’ rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children. No politician is above the law, even the Palm Beach County School Board members.”
District 1 Board Member Barbara McQuinn, who voted against the mask mandate, said she was more concerned with what disruption the new policy would cause at schools with high opt-out numbers and how this policy would be enforced.
"Because I’m not going to agree to a policy that I don’t agree to all parts of, I voted no," McQuinn said. "Some have interpreted that as, Barbara doesn’t want masking. Nothing can be further than the truth."
7% of students within the School District of Palm Beach County have opted out of wearing a mask under the past policy. That means 93% of students are wearing masks.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has stated that by taking away the parent’s right to choose if their child wears a mask, school districts are not in compliance with the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights.
Another part of this that remains to be seen is if a mask mandate is in place, will more teachers return to the classroom?
The latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County show 267 employees have been approved for COVID-19 leave of absence since Aug. 1.
John I. Leonard High School has the most with 26 employees on leave. It is also the school with the highest enrollment of 3,587 students.