Sunday, October 17, 2021

Palm Beach County Schools’ Quick Pivot on Masks and More

How did the Palm Beach County School Board pivot so quickly last week on masks?

Numbers.

I spoke Friday with Chairman Frank Barbieri. He represents Boca Raton and West Boca. Just before midnight on Wednesday, Barbieri joined five of his six colleagues to approve the strictest mask mandate of any Florida school district.

All of last year, Barbieri told me, about 3,800 students in Palm Beach County who were infected with COVID-19 came onto a campus. During the first six days of this year, the number was 940. As a result, about 4,400 students and staff had to stay home.

“If we don’t try to mitigate,” Barbieri said, “that 4,000 becomes 8,000 and then 12,000 and then we don’t have enough people to run the system.”

On July 30, Gov. DeSantis issued an executive order forbidding school districts from requiring masks. The order came as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations began approaching record levels. Palm Beach County and 43 other districts were to start school 11 days later.

DeSantis relented enough to allow mask mandates—if parents could opt out their children. Palm Beach County had adopted that policy until the numbers persuaded Barbieri and the others to follow the lead of counterparts in other large counties who defied the governor.

Under the policy, which took effect Monday and will remain in effect for 90 days—roughly until Thanksgiving—students can get mask exemptions only for what the school district calls a “documented disability” under federal law. A physician must provide documentation.

Six other counties, including Broward and Miami-Dade, also have approved mask mandates. Schools already have had to close in six counties. Pediatric cases and hospitalizations are setting new highs.

Last year, students could learn at home. This year, they can’t, by dictate of the state. So schools were fuller just as the state’s fourth COVID-19 wave rose.

In Orange County, 1,067 students have tested positive, compared with 40 all of last year. In the Tampa Bay area, 3,200 students tested positive. Last year, it was 200.

With the mask policy, the district set rules for students and faculty who must isolate at home and allow “healthy children to return as quickly as possible.” That plan relies on contract tracing and will matter a lot because the online programs of last year aren’t available.

For that reason, Barbieri wants teachers to turn on the cameras in their classrooms so that students at home can follow the lesson, not just get the work. Compliance is voluntary at this point. The teachers union objects to making it mandatory, claiming it will be a burden and expose instructors to potential scrutiny.

For the mask policy to work, pediatricians must not write sham exemptions. One large group, Palm Beach Pediatrics, already has posted a notice on its website to discourage parents from asking.

“Our providers,” the notice reads, “have studied peer-reviewed, scientific data and do not feel there is any medical condition that qualifies our patient population for a medically necessary mask exemption.”

Despite all this, an article in the Palm Beach Post reported that the district is holding back on full enforcement of the policy for now.

It all happened very fast, but board members stress that the policy aligns with the science in every way. “There was no way to follow (DeSantis’) order,” Barbieri said, “and keep the children safe.”

Potential development near Addison Mizner Elementary

addison mizner

With the new Addison Mizner School in southwest Boca Raton came neighborhood improvements. Sidewalks are wider. The city planted trees and installed new lighting.

Boca Square residents like those changes. They are focusing now, however, on the 3.6-acre property just north of the school.

A developer wants to build a 128-bed assisted living facility. The project would require a text amendment–a change to allow what the developer wants. The property was home for decades to a church, which has closed.

Councilwoman Monica Mayotte has sponsored the text amendment. Today, it goes before the city’s department heads for preliminary review. It is uncertain whether it will get to the council.

In its application, the developer calls the site “a perfect location” for such a facility. It would allow nearby residents to “age in place.” The comment presumes that nearby residents would want to live there.

To ease traffic, the developer would limit visiting hours and offer part of the property for pickup and drop-off at the school. Addison Mizner expanded this year from K-5 to sixth grade and will add seventh and eighth grades over the next two years.

A petition opposing the project has nearly 250 signatures. I’ll have more as this goes through review.

Recertification ordinance could pass tonight

At tonight’s city council meeting, Boca Raton may become the first city in Florida to require safety recertification of older buildings.

The city has moved ahead of other local governments since the collapse in late June of a condo in Surfside, north of Miami. Broward and Miami-Dade counties are the only entities that require updated inspections, both after 40 years. The Surfside condo was approaching that milestone, which seems to have guided Boca Raton’s proposal.

It would require electrical and structural engineers to issue reviews after 30 years, with follow-up reviews every 10 years after that. The ordinance would apply to all buildings that are taller than three stories and/or have at least 500 occupants.

As the staff memo notes, there have been changes since the council introduced the ordinance last month. The city has toughened requirements for the new reports and wants all draft versions to go to the city, not just the finished products. If repairs are necessary, a plan must follow no more than 30 days after the report.

In addition, the revised ordinance exempts single-family homes and duplexes. Staff members found that the city has a few homes that are at least four stories. The ordinance targets multi-family and commercial buildings.

Previously, the only speakers who commented expressed support. I’ll update in my Thursday post.

Brightline station plan

brightline

Also at tonight’s meeting, the council likely will approve the site plan for Boca Raton’s Brightline station. The company hopes to open it next year, after resuming service in November. Brightline stopped running trains in March 2020.

City Manager Leif Ahnell recommends approval. He states that the plan is “substantially consistent” with what Brightline proposed when the city leased land east of the downtown library for the station and parking garage.

Brightline is paying for the station. The city and the company are paying for the garage, which will have public parking in addition to that for Brightline passengers. The city’s share would be roughly $10 million.

The garage would be 45 feet tall and abut the Library Commons neighborhood to the north of the site. The library has 171 parking spaces now. The garage and station would take 62 of those, and 64 spaces in the garage would be for library patrons only.

Though many Library Commons residents objected to the project, the staff memo finds that the garage and station would present no “adverse impacts.” I’ll have an update after the meeting.

Boca Chick-fil-A update

I wrote previously about the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board’s decision to approve a Chick-fil-A near Interstate 95 on East Palmetto Park Road. The board rejected several staff-proposed conditions to prevent bottlenecks at the restaurant’s drive-thru lane.

Though the six board members made clear that they considered the conditions excessive—one would have allowed the city manager to close the restaurant if he or she considered traffic to be problematic—the staff has appealed the ruling. Council members will decide tonight.

City Manager Leif Ahnell recommends that the council grant the appeal. Otherwise, he said, the restaurant would not be code-compliant. Staff members may reference a recent Sun Sentinel story about a Chick-fil-A in Fort Lauderdale. Drive-thru backups onto Federal Highway became much worse after the restaurant stopped indoor dining because of the pandemic.

My sense is that if the council imposes every condition, Chick-fil-A will drop the application—or sue.

American Rescue Plan funds in Delray

City Manager Terrence Moore proposes that Delray Beach spend almost all of this year’s money from the American Rescue Plan to balance next year’s budget.

Delray Beach got $5.4 million in its first installment from the legislation that Congress–with no Republican votes—and President Biden approved in March. Moore wants to use $4.6 million toward the budget and take no money from reserves. At one point, the city faced a deficit of nearly $11 million.

Among other things, the proposed budget would fill 16 positions left open for this year and begin the planning for a new city hall and police station. The city commission will discuss the budget at today’s workshop meeting.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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