Inside the Florida school that told teachers not to get vaccinated

MIAMI — Long before Miami’s Centner Academy ignited a national uproar by telling teachers not to get COVID-19 vaccinations, contrary to all credible scientific advice, the school’s husband-and-wife founders were determined to do things exactly as they pleased, for better or worse.

It began with the academy’s first open house when David and Leila Centner asked guests not just to wipe their feet but to swaddle the soles of their shoes in Saran wrap. And it continued with an impassioned pledge to mold students into “emotional ninjas,” and with the coverings over the windows to ward off potential radiation from 5G cell towers. (“No adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies,” according to the World Health Organization.) Then there were the non-disclosure agreements required of employees who wanted to quit or parents who wanted to withdraw their kids. And the efforts to persuade staff how to vote in the presidential election. And the invitation to anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to address the school community. And the constant exhortations against wearing masks.

Through it all, Leila Centner, who runs the school’s day-to-day operations, was omnipresent, and teachers feared she was watching them over an expansive camera system, one current and three former employees said.

So when Centner sent an email last week warning staff at the private school’s two campuses not to take the coronavirus vaccine — in the process spreading misinformation about the drugs’ safety and raising questions about whether the school is violating the rights of employees to seek healthcare — few involved with the school were surprised.

“She was always talking about doctors that seemed fringey. And there were all these weird emails: Are masks really good for youth’s mental progress?” said Greg Tatar, the parent of a first-grader. “They screamed Republican, Trump, anti-COVID. All the weird news that you would see between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Fox.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, spoke at the Centner Academy.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, spoke at the Centner Academy. [ Instagram ]

Despite Centner’s eccentricities, Tatar had been pleased with the education his son was getting, with chiropractors, mindfulness coaches and a personal chef preparing organic, gluten- and sugar-free meals. Yelling and time-outs were banned. The school prioritized emotional well-being, language immersion — in Mandarin, French, Spanish, Italian and German — and physical health and nutrition.

But dissuading people from getting a vaccine approved by federal health authorities went too far. “It is our policy, to the extent possible, not to employ anyone who has taken the experimental COVID-19 injection until further information is known,” Centner wrote in an email to parents Monday.

Fearing that the health-conscious school might actually infect them and their children with a dangerous virus, parents bombarded the news media with complaints. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that COVID-19 vaccines are “safe and effective” and that millions of Americans have gotten them “under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.”

“People believe her because she’s in a position of power,” Tatar said. “I really don’t want her to fire all the teachers with common sense and keep the teachers that are believing and feeding into this fake science news. … What she’s doing is completely insane and unreasonable and dangerous.”

It could also be illegal.

Mark Richard, an attorney who represents the United Teachers of Dade and United Faculty of Miami Dade College, said a policy that bars employees from taking the vaccine could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it interferes with the right to get medical treatment, especially for employees who are at higher risk.

“It would be like a cancer patient not getting chemotherapy,” he said.

Labor and employment attorney Lowell Kuvin agreed that the ADA would cover employees’ right to be vaccinated.

“I think it would be definitely an easy lawsuit to bring. It’s tantamount to saying we don’t want people to work for us who have diabetes because they have to take insulin shots,” he said. “What’s the difference?”

The school has received public funds, including an $804,000 COVID-related Payroll Protection Program loan in April 2020 that doesn’t have to be paid back.

Former teachers and current parents told the Herald that the…

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