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The New York Times

How a Miami school became a beacon for anti-Vaxxers

MIAMI – A fifth-grade math and science teacher on Wednesday peddled a false conspiracy theory to students at Centner Academy, a private Miami school, warning them that they should not kiss parents who had been vaccinated against the coronavirus for more than five seconds because they could be exposed to a harmful vaccine shedding. “Hola Mami,” one student wrote in an email to her parents at school, saying the teacher “was telling us to stay away from you guys.” Almost a week earlier, the school threatened teachers’ jobs if they received a coronavirus vaccine before the end of the school year. Sign up for The Morning New York Times newsletter Alarmed parents have frantically texted each other on WhatsApp, trying to figure out a way to remove their children at the end of the term. Inside Centner Academy, however, “hundreds of applications from all over the world” have come in for teaching positions, according to the administration. Others came from people who wanted to enroll their children in school, where tuition costs can reach $ 30,000 per year. The tiny school in Miami’s trendy Design District became a national beacon for anti-vaccination campaigners virtually overnight, just as U.S. public health officials wondered how to overcome skepticism about vaccines. The policy prohibiting teachers from contacting students after receiving the vaccine caused a wave of TV crews who parked outside the school for days, prompting teachers to keep children indoors for education physical and recreation. Leila Centner, the co-founder of the school, who said she was not against fully tested vaccines, wrote on Instagram that the media “are trying to destroy my reputation because I went against their story ”. Dedicated supporters cheered her on. “We won’t let them bring you down!” one of them wrote on Instagram. “We are strong with you! You are an angel trying to save our children and our teachers. Centner, an avid social media user who has long used her accounts to document her luxurious lifestyle, took over the school last year amid the pandemic. She told the community that the school, from Kindergarten to Grade 8, would focus on “happiness” and embrace “medical freedom”. But interviews with 21 current and former parents and teachers, as well as a review of social media posts and school documents, emails, text messages and videos show how the wealthy and well-connected Centner brought her anti -vaccination and anti-masking in daily school life, turning what had been a tight-knit community into a community bitterly divided between those who support its views on vaccinations and those who do not. “Every afternoon I have to explain things to my child when she comes home and says, ‘How come the school says what you say isn’t right? Said Iris Acosta-Zobel, referring to the importance she places on house masking and vaccinations. She took her daughter out of school on Friday. David Centner, a former electronic road toll entrepreneur who co-founded the school in its current version with his wife, said in written responses to questions that the school listens to families. “We have met over 70 parents and we are happy that so many families continue to support our mission and trust us with their children,” he said. Sara Dagan, who has four children at school, said she was not troubled by the controversy. “Everything was out of proportion,” she said. “I am comfortable not getting vaccinated. My main concern is the happiness of the children. Most of those interviewed for this article requested anonymity to protect their children or their jobs. Some former parents and teachers have said they fear reprisals if they speak out publicly. Others declined to comment because the school made them sign non-disclosure agreements. Anti-vaccination policy forces newly vaccinated teachers to keep away from students – Leila Centner has told teachers not to kiss children, for example. It caused such a frenzy that a reporter questioned him during a White House briefing. (The school received $ 804,375 from the federal paycheck protection program during the pandemic.) Jen Psaki, the press secretary, noted that public health guidelines strongly encourage coronavirus vaccines and aim to ensure personal safety. Centner Academy opened in its current form last year after the Centners, who previously only owned preschool, took over the Metropolitan International School, an established private school that focused on foreign languages ​​and served a clientele. international. Its owner has retired and said the school will merge with the kindergarten owned by the Centners, who have made big donations in recent years to the Republican Party and former President Donald Trump. By the time the pandemic struck, the school’s old identity and rulers were gone, and the Centners were in control. Things started to change, the parents said. Surveillance cameras have been installed to record both video and audio, for security and insurance purposes according to David Centner. Leila Centner once remarked that children should be kept away from windows for fear of radiation from 5G phone towers, another baseless conspiracy theory. (Kindergarten windows now have “electromagnetic frequency shield blockers,” Centner said in response to a question about the school’s concerns over 5G.) The school objected to feeding children sugar and gluten and required students to wear different shoes for indoors and outdoors. Some parents have said they find these ideas strange but harmless – unlike what started to happen with the school’s response to the coronavirus. The school opened for in-person instruction in September and initially committed to following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as a local mask mandate. But teachers said they found no attempts at social distancing during orientation in August, and Leila Centner has discouraged the use of masks. Teachers were required to sign waivers acknowledging that there was a health risk associated with returning to work in person. When the Florida Department of Health visited for routine food inspections in August and December, teachers were asked to disguise themselves, according to a former teacher and a current teacher, who produced two WhatsApp messages as evidence . Parents have been offered forms to exempt their children from any need to wear masks, like a school policy that also exempts children from vaccines of all kinds if their parents wish. Leila Centner ran a WhatsApp group called ‘Knowledge Is Key’ (membership was optional, David Centner said) where she shared anti-vaccination materials with teachers. When a parent asked if the school would impose the flu shot, Leila Centner expressed her skepticism about the vaccines in a letter to parents. She cited a nonprofit organization started by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccination crusader. “As many of you may have already learned, we are not blind followers and we try not to make decisions based on fear,” she wrote. In November, two levels of preschool education added two days of online-only education to their long Thanksgiving break after multiple cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. Once Florida began administering coronavirus vaccines, Leila Centner invited members of the school community to a virtual conference with an anti-vaccination pediatrician to discuss the potential dangers of vaccines. Kennedy visited the school and met with teachers. The same was true for another anti-vaccination activist, who also met with students. Then came the announcement that vaccinated teachers would have to stay away from students or would not be allowed to return for now if they received the vaccine during the summer. “If you want to get it, this won’t be the right school for you,” Leila Centner told teachers of the vaccine on a virtual call. No one has expressed concerns, said Jimena Hills, a faculty member who supports Leila Centner and said she has no issues with the school’s vaccination policies and believes they do not. ‘should not have been disclosed to the press. “All of this controversy really could have been avoided,” she said. School officials insisted that they did not discourage students from approaching their vaccinated parents. Centner told parents in a meeting Thursday that the teacher mentioned by the fifth-grader in her email had spoken indiscriminately; the teacher has since apologized and recanted, she said. Still, the reunion was sometimes tense, several parents said. A father, they said, clashed with a faculty member speaking out on behalf of the school and teachers’ vaccination policy. The school continued to defend the policy on Friday. “In our school, we have asked our teachers to take a cautious and precautionary break and to move through these remaining weeks until the statements made are thorough,” said David Centner. “We encourage teachers to consult with their health care providers when making these medical decisions.” Local state senator Jason WB Pizzo, a Democrat, said he was told that neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Health had jurisdiction over the school’s immunization policies . (Centner Academy had a student receiving a good following this school year.) On Thursday, Pizzo introduced a legislative amendment that he hoped would prevent schools and businesses from banning people from getting vaccinated, calling such a policy “quackery”. He had some bipartisan support. “Let us show that the Senate is not crazy,” said Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a Republican. He failed on a tie vote. Back in Miami, Leila Centner didn’t seem bothered. On Friday, she posted on Instagram that she would speak next month at a “freedom fight festival” with several conservative political luminaries, including Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Its theme: “Reopening America”. This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company


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