Home > Essays > Anti-Vaxx Conspirator Operates Private School, Promotes Crackpot Theory, Gets National Attention, Sows Confusion, Generates Publicity, Reaps $$$$

Anti-Vaxx Conspirator Operates Private School, Promotes Crackpot Theory, Gets National Attention, Sows Confusion, Generates Publicity, Reaps $$$$

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured a story about Centner Academy, a school operated by Leila Centner, “an avid social media user who has long used her accounts to document her luxurious lifestyle“, who is now using her position as head of school to promote anti-vaxxing messages to parents and children in her school. Her belief that vaccinated teachers “shed harmful vaccines” led to an edict that teachers not get vaccinated for fear that the vaccines currently available are not “fully tested”. As a result many parents are withdrawing their children from the school and many like-minded anti-vcxx parents and prospective teachers are knocking down her doors trying to get slots for their children…. and Ms. Centner is the center of a media firestorm.

In a pre-internet era her message might be heard by a small number of parents and warrant local coverage. But in this era of social media and the need for new content 24/7 the result of this decision by Ms. Centner was predictable:

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 says she is not against fully tested vaccines, wrote on Instagram that journalists 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.”

In the 35 years I led public schools the number of parents who failed to vaccinate children was minuscule…. but I retired in 2011 before the full force of the internet hit and celebrity anti-vaxxers began promoting their theories that vaccines caused autism. With that suspicion gaining relatively widespread credibility and the pro-Trump wing of the GOP gaining traction on wild theories about the recent election it is no surprise that anti-vaccine theories are gaining traction.

But this whole episode illustrates one other reality of public schools today: that lightly regulated “choice” leads to the promotion and perpetuation of crackpot theories. These paragraphs illustrate this:

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 J. 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 Mr. Centner said were security and insurance purposes. Ms. 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,” Mr. 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 Ms. Centner discouraged mask use. Teachers had to sign waivers acknowledging that there was a health risk associated with returning to work in person….

Once Florida began administering coronavirus vaccines, Ms. Centner invited members of the school community to a virtual talk with an anti-vaccination pediatrician to discuss potential dangers of the vaccines. Mr. 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,” Ms. Centner told teachers about the vaccine on a virtual call.

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.

Ms. Centner operated a WhatsApp group called “Knowledge Is Key” (joining was optional, Mr. Centner said) on which she shared anti-vaccination material with teachers. When a parent asked if the school would mandate the flu vaccine, Ms. 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.

The Florida government’s reaction to this?

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, Mr. 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 Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a Republican.

It failed on a tied vote.

Back in Miami, Ms. 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 T. Flynn and Roger J. Stone Jr. Its theme: “Reopen America.”

From my perspective, it isn’t difficult to connect the dots on this. As State’s simultaneously promote “choice” and “deregulation” these kinds of niche schools will proliferate… and if neither the Florida Health Department or Education Department will step in on a case that could impact the health and wellbeing of the community at large how could they step in if a school was promoting anti-Holocaust conspiracy theories? There can be no UNITED States of America without a UNITED public school system.

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