Miami-Dade Schools walks back optional masks for outdoors. Anti-mask protesters speak out

Miami Herald | by Colleen Wright | May 19, 2021

With fewer than three weeks left in the school year, masks dominated the conversation Wednesday at Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Around 80 anti-mask protesters — some of whom did not have children in public schools — rallied outside the School Board meeting calling to end mask mandates in schools. A few dozen of those protesters spoke passionately during the board’s public comment period.

Also on Wednesday, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district had to walk back its sudden decision Tuesday to allow optional mask use outside when socially distanced.

He also definitively announced that the 2021-22 school year would be mask-optional, though that was not the consensus at Tuesday’s medical task force meeting for the district.

Many protesters held up signs outside the district that read “Masks = Child Abuse” with a website at the bottom that read “FloridiansFirst.US”.

Chris Barcenas, director of the Miami-Dade chapter of Floridians First, said he did not have children in the school system but organized Wednesday’s event because some parents didn’t feel comfortable coming to the rally.

“We don’t agree with masking children,” said Barcenas, adding that children are the least affected by COVID-19.

Protesters at an “Un-mask Our Kids” rally at the School Board administration building on May 19, 2021. Twenty-one speakers signed up to speak about masks during public comment. Many are against masks in schools. Charles Trainor Jr CTRAINOR@MIAMIHERALD.COM

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, 917 students have tested positive for the coronavirus since April 15.

Mary Palazuelos-Jonckheere said her 16-year-old son attends Cutler Bay Senior High. She said she was wearing a mask outside to stay out of trouble with police, and she hopes masks will be optional in the fall.

“He’s wearing a mask because I want him to attend,” she said. “It’s unwarranted. It’s not an emergency.”

Jennifer De Paz said she custom-made shirts for 15 people to wear for the rally. The adult shirts read “unmask our children”; children’s shirts read “unmask my smile.”

De Paz said her children attend public schools in Miami Lakes and Miami Gardens.

“We want our kids unmasked. We’re tired of them not being able to breathe,” she said. De Paz called School Board members hypocrites, observing, “They sit in their own board meetings without masks.”

Elizabeth Rodriguez said her children are now adults but came out to support the cause.

“We’re in South Florida,” said Rodriguez. “It’s too hot.”

Though the crowd outside the School Board was mostly focused on masks, some showed up wearing political attire that favored Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.

A Republican hopeful for Congress, Rubin Young, was collecting signatures to qualify as a candidate for the District 23 race against Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the longtime Democratic House member.

Two parents gave different last names to the Miami Herald and said a different last name when speaking during public comment at a broadcast meeting. Some at the rally expressed hesitancy against the COVID-19 vaccine or voiced anti-vaccine sentiments.

During public comment, a parent named Javier Montes opened his comments with a quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and invoked “I can’t breathe” from the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck.

“I am here today to demand freedom for my kids,” he said.

School Board members did not immediately respond to the speakers or discuss masks at Wednesday’s meeting. School Board Member Marta Perez said she couldn’t “remember the last time there was a passionate group of parents.”

The United Teachers of Dade pointed out that the district’s sudden decision to make masks optional outdoors when socially distanced violated the letter of understanding between the union and the district. The LOU signed in August requires all employees, students and visitors to wear facial coverings, and any changes must be negotiated and agreed upon.

Carvalho said Wednesday that schools were directed to “pause” from his announcement Tuesday that masks would be optional outside. That directive came after the district’s ad hoc public health and medical expert task force meeting.

Carvalho said that a “conclusion and unanimous recommendation” that came from that meeting was that the “21-22 school year will be a mask-optional school year.”

Dr. Aileen Marty, a physician and infectious disease expert at Florida International University who advises the school district on COVID-19 protocols, was present at Tuesday’s task force meeting.

“I think what we said during the meeting was that it would probably be mask optional starting in August,” she said. “But everyone said, and everyone agrees, we have to look at what the actual numbers are and what’s really going on at that time before a final decision is made. We have to be flexible to the real-world conditions.”

Dr. Lisa Gwynn, a pediatrician at the University of Miami, was adamant Tuesday that masks stay on in the classroom, citing rising pediatric COVID cases.

Marty had been paying attention to what was happening at the School Board. Her mother was a longtime administrator with the district.

“It makes me sad,” Marty said. “It makes me sad because these are people who just don’t get it. The goal is to protect their children. The goal is to allow us to have classrooms functioning, to have the children have social interactions in a safe way.

“The goal is not to hurt anybody. The masks, it’s pretty innocuous. You’re not injecting anything into anyone. It’s such a safe idea.”

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear a mask in public, it clarified on Saturday that the guidance does not extend to schools.

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