Amid anti-mask protests, Broward school district opts to await CDC decision on masks

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Anti-mask protesters and members of the Broward Teachers Union got into a heated exchange in the hallway outside of Tuesday’s School Board meeting where plans for next month’s reopening were expected to be discussed amid Florida’s rising new COVID-19 cases.

Roughly 20 protesters gathered in the lobby and hallways of the Kathleen C. Wright Building in Fort Lauderdale and refused to wear facial coverings even after they were told to do so by the building’s security detail.

Barbara Rodas holds signs with her 6-year-old daughter, Athena Coletti, outside of the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Building of the Broward School Board in Fort Lauderdale, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Athena was planning to speak in front of the School Board during a special workshop on COVID-19 safety precautions and potential mask mandates for the upcoming school year. The discussion was postponed until Wednesday after the anti-mask protesters refused to wear masks inside the room where the School Board was meeting.
Barbara Rodas holds signs with her 6-year-old daughter, Athena Coletti, outside of the Kathleen C. Wright Administration Building of the Broward School Board in Fort Lauderdale, Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Athena was planning to speak in front of the School Board during a special workshop on COVID-19 safety precautions and potential mask mandates for the upcoming school year. The discussion was postponed until Wednesday after the anti-mask protesters refused to wear masks inside the room where the School Board was meeting.

When it was clear the protesters would not wear masks, the School Board called off the meeting because all people who want to speak must wear them inside the auditorium, said Broward Public Schools spokeswoman Kathy Koch.

“Some people were able to enter who were not wearing a mask. They were asked to put on a mask; they were offered a mask or to leave, and they would not,” Koch said. “So we had the decision to make what do we do in that case. Most of them said they had a medical waiver. But, you cannot prove it nor can you ask for it. So, the safety of the people who are in our building is our main concern and what all of this is about.”

Koch said the School Board would take up the issue at its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday.

She said board members wanted to wait regardless of the protests until the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention made its recommendations Tuesday afternoon about masks. Later in the day, the CDC recommended that vaccinated people return to wearing masks in places like Florida where the delta variant is causing a surge in COVID-19 cases, and that all teachers, students, staff and visitors wear masks at schools nationwide, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not.

The board’s decision to postpone the meeting did not sit well with the protesters, who vented their frustrations on teachers union members in the waiting area of the lobby. And teachers union members responded in kind in back-and-forth exchanges.

“We need a special session of the state Legislature to ban this kind of crap right now,” said Chris Nelson, 38, founder of the anti-mask group Reopen South Florida.

Nelson then saw Ann Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, walk by, and he called her a child abuser.

“You’re a child abuser by forcing that kid to say something,” Fusco retorted.

She was referring to the several parents who brought their young children to speak at the meeting against mask mandates.

Fusco told Nelson she was just as surprised as he was that district officials postponed the meeting.

“Just as you found out they canceled it, I found out,” she said.

The yelling continued for several minutes until security threatened to call the police to remove the protesters.

Nelson, a DJ in Fort Lauderdale, said he came to the meeting out of concern that stricter rules on masks, social distancing and vaccines will come back as health officials find ways to deal with the delta variant, which has proven to be more virulent than other strains of the coronavirus.

In Florida, the number of new weekly COVID cases reported by the state on Friday was 73,166, up about 700 percent since mid-June.

Nelson said he was unconcerned about the rising case loads.

“We said from the beginning that this was going to go on forever,” Nelson told the Miami Herald.

He blamed the abrupt ending of Tuesday’s meeting on teachers union “agitators.”

“But, that’s OK. We had a great time. We rallied. We rallied for the kids,” Nelson told fellow protesters before they left the building.

He accused the board of postponing the discussion because there was a good chance many of the protesters would not be able to come back because of work, calling the decision “one of the most egregious abuses of power I’ve ever seen.”

“They know we all have jobs. We’re the people who are like the business owners,” he said. “We’re the engine of this country. They know it’s going to be very hard for us to come back tomorrow.”

So, Nelson said that he and his group are going to find School Board members and other officials on the street to voice their opinions.

“If we can’t be heard here in public ares, and peacefully, we will go to where they are, and we will let them know how we feel about this, because we will not stand for children being masked for another year,” he said.

One parent who came to support the protest was Barbada Rodas, 39, of Deerfield Beach. She brought her 6-year-old daughter, Athena, with her.

“Another school year with having to wear masks all day is unbearable,” Rodas said.

Said Athena, who was in kindergarten last year at Deerfield Beach Elementary School, but is going to a different school in the fall, “I don’t want to wear a mask. It felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

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