Dr. Uzma Hasan
Doctor weighs in on how safe it is to get kids back in school
02:16 - Source: CNN
Miami CNN  — 

Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest school district, voted 7-1 in favor of a mask mandate Wednesday, in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order on masks in schools and the threat of severe state penalties.

The mask mandate does not allow for parents to opt out, except with an excuse from a health care provider.

The vote came as students in Broward County returned to the classroom, and after the State Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend that Alachua and Broward counties be investigated for requiring mask-wearing in schools.

“For the consequences associated with doing the right thing, whatever that right thing is, I will wear proudly as a badge of honor,” Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said at the State Board of Education meeting before the vote.

Carvalho has said the district followed the recommendations of medical experts who called for a mask requirement.

DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw told CNN, “No politician is above the law. The legislature passed the parents’ bill of rights and Gov. DeSantis signed it into law. Forced masking of all schoolchildren is not consistent with protecting parents’ rights to make health and education decisions for their own children.”

When asked by CNN whether he was prepared for a back-and-forth with DeSantis on the issue, Carvalho said he knew the decision would result in “pushback and confrontation,” and even the threat of consequences to his salary and position.

Carvalho said the board was relying on the opinion of seven to eight public health officials and medical doctors who are experts in the areas of epidemiology or immunology.

“And I would question, if we refuse to accept the opinion, the expert opinion of doctors and public health officials, what is the alternative?” the superintendent said. “What is the other option that we should be listening to, if it’s just a matter of a parent’s or parental choice, or the opinion of a single individual?”

The superintendent said the district has put appropriate safeguards in place, with plans to revisit the protocols in place on a weekly basis.

Protesters outside the meeting could be heard chanting “we will not comply” following the vote.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools return Monday. The district has about 334,000 students and is the fourth largest in the country.

In nearby Palm Beach County, the school board also passed a mask mandate Wednesday by a vote of 6-1, board member Erica Whitfield told CNN.

Hillsborough County School Board votes to approve mask mandate

Hillsborough County Public Schools also approved a mask mandate Wednesday in a 5-2 vote. The mandate allows for parents to opt out only in medical situations.

During the nearly five-hour emergency meeting, more than 300 additional cases of Covid-19 were reported in the school district, according to its Covid-19 dashboard. More than 530 teachers and 1,475 students have tested positive for coronavirus. The dashboard also showed more than 10,000 students currently in quarantine.

DeSantis, speaking at a news conference in West Palm Beach, said students exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms should stay home from school, but that parents should be the ones to ultimately decide whether to send their children back to the classroom.

“I don’t think to say, anyone that was in, like, a hallway or in a classroom, that they, even if they’re healthy, should be sent home,” he said. “I think quarantining healthy kids deprives these kids of an ability to get an education. Now, maybe a parent would want a healthy kid to be quarantined if there’s an exposure, but I think that should be the choice of the parent.”

In Tampa, Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Addison Davis said at the meeting, following public comment in which more than 90 people spoke, that he believes the current mask policy should remain in place, with masks required but parents allowed to opt out for any reason.

Davis referenced how the state could seek to withhold funding or salaries from districts that defy orders, as well as conduct forensic audits and investigations into public records requests.

“We need stability in this situation,” Davis said, adding that those efforts would create disruption in the county.

‘We must act and act now’

Hillsborough County called the emergency school board meeting after thousands of people were told to go into isolation or quarantine because of more than a thousand Covid-19 cases among students and staff members in the past few weeks.

Lynn Gray, the school board chair, said, “We must act, and act now,” noting quarantine and isolation numbers surpassed 10,000 and student coronavirus infections topped 1,400.

“The cost now of inaction will endanger the health and safety of our students,” Gray said. “We are also reminded that our number one priority as School Board members and our superintendent is the health and safety of all students for the public.”

At the meeting in Tampa, a mother told the board about her daughter getting Covid-19 even after masking. 

When CNN interviewed the mother, Stephanie Kaltenbaugh, outside the meeting, a group of anti-mask protesters harassed her and the reporter. 

“It’s disrespectful to our children,” Kaltenbaugh said. “It’s disrespectful to my kids who can’t get vaccinated because they’re not old enough. And it’s really, really upsetting that we have people like that disrespecting people who just want to protect our kids’ health.”

A total of 28,782 students – or 14.44% – had opted out of the mask policy but the school district said that number had gone down in recent days. 

Earlier this month, the Alachua school board voted to require masks for the first two weeks of classes, citing the rise of Covid-19 cases. On Tuesday, the board extended the mask requirement for another eight weeks. The district has about 30,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Broward schools opened on Wednesday

The Broward County school board voted last week to maintain the school district’s mask mandate, originally approved July 28. 

Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright commended the district on a successful first day back on Wednesday.

“Mask wearing today was not an issue. Our students complied. Our visitors to campus also complied,” Cartwright said.

She said there were two cases of a student and a teacher not complying with the mask mandate. Cartwright said she had an “amicable conversation” with the parent of the student.

Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward County school board, told CNN it would be a “far stretch” for the state to remove officials but “wouldn’t put it past the state.” Osgood said it was probably more likely the state would penalize them financially.   

The district said 257,785 students are enrolled this year. Prior to the start of the school year on Wednesday, 436 students and 191 staff members were quarantining or in isolation due to exposure to or testing positive for Covid-19. 

“The rule that they’re stating that we are violating is from the Department of Health, it is not through the Department of Education,” Cartwright said of the state. 

She added, “We do believe that we are in compliance. It is not specific in the language as to who gets the opt-out of measures or not. And we do have those provisions available for students who have a medical reason (not to wear a mask).”

CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Keith Allen, Rebekah Riess and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.