MIAMI — A fifth-grade math and science teacher peddled a bogus conspiracy theory Wednesday to students at Centner Academy, a private school in Miami, warning them that they should not hug parents who had been vaccinated against the coronavirus for more than five seconds because they might be exposed to harmful vaccine shedding.
“Hola Mami,” one student wrote in an email to her parents from school, saying that the teacher was “telling us to stay away from you guys.”
Nearly a week before, the school had threatened teachers’ employment if they got a coronavirus vaccine before the end of the school year.
Alarmed parents frantically texted one another on WhatsApp, trying to find a way to pull their children out at the end of the term.
Inside Centner Academy, however, “hundreds of queries from all over the world” came in for teaching positions, according to the administration. More came from people who wanted to enroll their children at the school, where tuition runs up to $30,000 a year.
The small school in Miami’s trendy Design District became a national beacon for anti-vaccination activists practically overnight last week, just as U.S. public health officials wrestled with how to overcome vaccine skepticism.
The policy barring teachers from contact with students after getting the vaccine brought a flurry of television news crews who parked outside the school for days, prompting teachers to keep children indoors for physical education and recess. Leila Centner, the school’s co-founder, who said she is not against fully tested vaccines, wrote on Instagram that the media are “trying to destroy my reputation because I went against their narrative.”
Devoted supporters cheered her on.
“We won’t let them take you down!” one of them wrote on Instagram. “We stand strong with you! You’re an angel trying to save our kids and teachers.”
Centner, an avid social media user who has long used her accounts to document her luxurious lifestyle, took effective control of the school last year in the midst of the pandemic. She told the community that the school, with prekindergarten through eighth grades, would focus on “happiness” and espouse “medical freedom.”
But interviews with 21 current and former parents and teachers as well as a review of social media posts and of school documents, emails, text messages and videos show how the wealthy and well-connected Centner brought her anti-vaccination and anti-masking views into the school’s day-to-day life, turning what had been a tight-knit community into one bitterly split between those who support her 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’re saying is not right?’” said Iris Acosta-Zobel, referring to the importance she gives at home to masking and vaccinations.
She pulled her daughter out of the school Friday.
David Centner, a former electronic highway tolling entrepreneur who co-founded the school in its current iteration with his wife, said in written responses to questions that the school was listening to families.
“We have met with more than 70 parents, and we are pleased that so many families continue to support our mission and trust us with their children,” he said.
Sara Dagan, who has four children at the school, said she was not troubled by the controversy.
“Everything was blown out of proportion,” she said. “I’m comfortable with holding off on the vaccine. My main concern is the happiness of the kids.”
Most people interviewed for this article requested anonymity to protect their children or their employment. Some former parents and teachers said they feared retaliation if they spoke publicly. Others declined to comment because the school had made them sign nondisclosure agreements.
The anti-vaccination policy requires recently vaccinated teachers to maintain a distance from students — Leila Centner told teachers not to hug the children, for example. It caused such a frenzy that a reporter asked about it 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 vaccines against the coronavirus and are meant to keep people safe.
Centner Academy opened in its current form last year after the Centners, who previously owned just the preschool, took over the Metropolitan International School, an established private school that focused on foreign languages and served an international clientele. Its owner retired and said the school would merge with the preschool owned by the Centners, who have donated heavily in recent years to the Republican Party and former President Donald Trump.
By the time the pandemic hit, the school’s old identity and leaders were gone, and the Centners were at the helm.
Things began to change, parents said. Surveillance cameras were installed to record both video and audio, for what David Centner said were security and insurance purposes. Leila Centner once remarked that children should be kept away from windows, for fear of radiation from 5G cell towers, another baseless conspiracy theory. (The windows at the preschool now have electromagnetic frequency “shielding blockers,” David Centner said in response to a question about the school’s 5G concerns.) The school opposed feeding children sugar and gluten and required that students have different shoes for indoors and outdoors. Some parents said they thought such ideas odd but inoffensive — unlike what began to happen with the school’s response to the coronavirus.
The school opened for in-person instruction in September and initially pledged to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as well as a local mask mandate. But teachers said they found no attempt at social distancing during orientation in August, and Leila Centner discouraged mask use. Teachers had 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 told to mask up, according to a former teacher and a current teacher, who produced two WhatsApp messages as proof.
Parents were offered forms to exempt their children from any need to wear masks, similar to a school policy that also exempts children from vaccines of all kinds if their parents wish.
Leila Centner operated a WhatsApp group called “Knowledge Is Key” (joining was optional, David Centner said) on which she shared anti-vaccination material with teachers. When a parent asked if the school would mandate the flu vaccine, Leila Centner laid out her skepticism about 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 learned by now, we are not blind followers, and we try not to make fear-based decisions,” she wrote.
In November, two grade levels in the preschool added two days of online-only instruction to their long Thanksgiving break after several COVID-19 cases were confirmed.
Once Florida began administering coronavirus vaccines, Leila Centner invited members of the school community to a virtual talk with an anti-vaccination pediatrician to discuss potential dangers of the vaccines. Kennedy visited the school and met with teachers. So did 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 get the vaccine over the summer.
“If you want to get it, this is not going to be the right school for you,” Leila Centner told teachers about the vaccine on a virtual call.
Nobody spoke up with concerns, said Jimena Hills, a faculty member who supports Leila Centner and said she had no problem with the school’s policies on vaccinations and thought they should not have been leaked to the press.
“All of this controversy could have really been avoided,” she said.
School officials insisted that they were not discouraging students from coming close to their vaccinated parents.
Centner told parents during a meeting Thursday that the teacher mentioned by the fifth-grade student in her email had been speaking out of turn; the teacher has since apologized and retracted her statement, she said. Still, the meeting was sometimes tense, several parents said. One father, they said, got in the face of a faculty member who had spoken out on behalf of the school and the teacher vaccination policy.
The school continued to defend the policy Friday.
“At our school, we have asked our teachers to take a prudent, precautionary pause and get through these remaining weeks until the claims being made are further researched,” David Centner said. “We encourage teachers to consult their health care providers as they make these medical decisions.”
The local state senator, Jason W.B. Pizzo, a Democrat, said he was told that neither the Department of Education nor the Department of Health had jurisdiction over the school’s vaccination policies. (Centner Academy had one student receiving a public voucher this school year.)
On Thursday, Pizzo introduced a legislative amendment that he hoped would prevent schools and businesses from prohibiting people from getting vaccinated, calling such a policy “quackery.”
He had some bipartisan support.
“Let’s show that the Senate is not insane,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a Republican.
It failed on a tied vote.
Back in Miami, Leila Centner appeared unbothered. On Friday, she posted on Instagram that she would speak next month at a “freedom-fighting festival” with several conservative political luminaries, including Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Its theme: “Reopen America.”