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Miami-Dade schools votes to require masks, bucking DeSantis order

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he will wear the consequences of the decision “as a badge of honor.”
Children wait to enter classrooms, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, at the Carrie P. Meek/Westview K-8 Center in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Children wait to enter classrooms, Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, at the Carrie P. Meek/Westview K-8 Center in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Aug. 18
Updated Aug. 19

MIAMI — Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the State Board of Education on Wednesday that the largest school district in Florida intends to buck Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration’s order on masks, saying he will do “the right thing” and will wear the consequences as a “badge of honor.”

The Miami-Dade County School Board met later Wednesday and voted 7-1 to require students to wear masks when they return to class Monday, following the unanimous recommendation of a task force of medical experts. Carvalho said on Monday he fully supports the medical experts’ recommendation.

“For the consequences associated with doing the right thing, whatever that right thing is, I will wear proudly as a badge of honor,” Carvalho told the State Board of Education during a meeting at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus. “I’m going to leave here today and go to my own school board meeting and I’m going to do that, which is right, rightfully righteous.”

Carvalho’s remarks came a day after the state board held an emergency meeting to consider sanctions against two Florida school districts — Broward County Public Schools and Alachua County Public Schools — that flouted DeSantis’ order on mask mandates. Education commissioner Richard Corcoran warned both districts last week that the state board could withhold funds from the districts if they continue to require parents to provide a doctor’s note to allow them to opt their kids out of the districts’ mandates.

Related: Board of Education criticizes Florida schools over mask mandates, mulls penalties

The districts escaped sanctions Tuesday, but the state board directed Corcoran to further investigate the “conduct” of the districts’ school board members and superintendents. Board chairperson Tom Grady floated the possibility of removing school officials from office as a consequence during Tuesday’s meeting.

Also on Wednesday, the Hillsborough County School Board voted 5-2 to require its students to wear masks for the next 30 days. And Palm Beach County School Board members voted 6-1 to remove parents’ ability to exempt their children from wearing masks on public school campuses, the second change to its mask policy in less than two weeks, the Palm Beach Post reported.

Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough, in that order, are Florida’s largest school districts. Palm Beach is the fifth-largest district in Florida.

At a news conference in Pembroke Pines on Wednesday, DeSantis said there “obviously will be consequences” for districts that impose mask mandates. DeSantis said the state board “enumerated some things that would be very appropriate” as penalties, but his office did not respond when asked if he was referencing Grady’s suggestion to remove school officials from office.

“At the end of the day, you have local officials who do not believe they need to follow the law. That’s what this is about. They are trying to posture it about me, because if you make it about me you get on CNN,” DeSantis said.

Related: Hillsborough School Board votes to require masks for students, staff

Carvalho uses Afghanistan analogy

Carvalho told state board members and Corcoran that threats and consequences would not sway his decision on masking, and asked them to reflect on what is “legal, versus moral and ethical.”

He compared the district’s looming decision on masks to the one made by U.S. military pilots and troops who packed a C-17 transport plane with more than double the number of passengers before it left Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Sunday night.

“The chiefs on that plane made a decision that broke the law and every single rule to save lives. They are heroes in my book,” Carvalho said.

Board vice-chairperson Ben Gibson said it was “disgusting to compare the two situations.”

“Our fight for what we believe is giving parents the choice to make the best decision for their children,” Gibson said.

Carvalho framed the issue as a more dire situation. He said members of the community are “begging” him to do the “right thing” amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases

“Yesterday I spoke with a mother of a child who died. Over the week, I’ve spoken with employees and their relatives, begging me to do the right thing,” Carvalho said. “I will do all that I can to do that.”

He said three former State Board of Education members, including two who previously served as chairs, called him on Wednesday to also ask him to “do the right thing.”

“If the consequence at any point in my career is a threat to my own position, it is OK for the place I call home right now,” Carvalho said.

Related: Biden may take legal action against governors who ban school mask mandates

After speaking to the board, Carvalho told reporters that the “right thing includes a mandatory mask policy.” Holding his facial covering, Carvalho said, “This is not a political statement. This is a protective tool. Nothing more, nothing less.”

He took aim at critics of his decision, saying they are adding to the list of concerns educators face as they prepare to welcome back all Miami-Dade public school students next week.

“Monday is right around the corner. Why in the world are we adding to the pressure, the anxiety, the fear, the instability, when we’re asking 350,000 kids to return to school? Eighteen thousand teachers to return to the classroom. All the support staff. I would think we would be celebrating. We would be elevating the work they are about to do,” he said.

The superintendent also said that he has received several death threats by phone and on social media from people in states like Texas and North Carolina over the mask mandate.

“As we’re fighting to protect the lives of our workforce and kids, my life is being threatened,” Carvalho said.

State board member responds

Gibson lamented that school districts are trying to go against state orders that are meant to convey that “parents know best” when it comes to educational and health decisions.

The Biden administration has stepped in to show support for local school officials who impose mask mandates, in accordance with the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related: Biden calls Broward superintendent, says he backs school mask mandate

The administration has offered districts federal stimulus money to offset any financial penalties the state imposes, a move that Corcoran criticized Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, in a call with congressional Democrats from Florida, said school officials have the support of the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress.

“Our message to school boards, cities and counties across Florida is clear: Do the right thing, defy this governor and know that President Biden and the Democratic Congress has your backs,” said Soto, whose Ninth Congressional District is south of Orlando.

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties in the 22nd District, said DeSantis’ mask policies are solely motivated by a future desire to run for president.

“He may think it helps him in some Republican primary years from now, but he’s certainly not winning over Floridians,” Deutch said. “He’s playing the short game here. This is absolutely about winning the Republican presidential primary in 2024 and being the Trumpiest candidate in the field.”

Gibson noted the State Board of Education may not be able to do much now that the Biden administration has stepped in, but criticized school districts who are not abiding by the state’s mask orders.

“We cannot have a state where some school districts have the option to follow the law, and some are not,” Gibson said. “I think at the end of the day, we as a board have always stood for parental choice over government mandates and control. And we only have so much authority here at the state board but we’ve exercised that authority, and I think that it’s been the right thing to do.”

Ana Ceballos reported from Tallahassee and David Goodhue reported from Miami. McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Alex Daugherty and Miami Herald reporter Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.