Miami private school Centner Academy won’t employ vaccinated teachers, staff

A private school with two campuses in Miami has warned its staff against taking vaccines that prevent COVID-19, saying it will not employ anyone who has been inoculated and spreading misinformation about the potential risks of vaccination.

Centner Academy, with campuses in the Design District and Edgewater, informed parents of its policy for teachers and staff by email on Monday. The announcement, first reported by the New York Times, left some parents, teachers and medical experts aghast because it was presented as fact without citing any scientific evidence.

Leila Centner, who co-founded the school with husband David Centner, warned that vaccinated persons “may be transmitting something from their bodies” that could harm others, particularly the “reproductive systems, fertility, and normal growth and development in women and children.”

Centner acknowledged in the email that the information is “new and yet to be researched.” Still, she asked employees who have not taken a COVID vaccine to wait until the end of the school year. She also recommended that faculty and staff hold off on taking the injection “until there is further research available on whether this experimental drug is impacting unvaccinated individuals.”

“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 the email to parents.

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Centner Academy was incorporated in 2018, state records show. The school has about 300 students and charges $30,000 a year in tuition for middle school, according to information provided on its website,

An emailed statement to the Herald lists concerns related to the vaccine but does not back up the claims with scientific evidence or peer-reviewed research, only links to unofficial websites that purport to track deaths related to the vaccine.

“We know not everyone agrees on this topic, but this is our philosophy at Centner Academy, one in which many of our teachers and parents share,” the statement read. Leila Centner did not reply to direct requests for comment.

Alhia Molina, 21, Neila Granzoti Rudden, 40, and Bianca Erickson, 45, close their eyes in a moment of meditation during Centner Academy’s preview as Miami Design District school on Aug 21, 2019.
Alhia Molina, 21, Neila Granzoti Rudden, 40, and Bianca Erickson, 45, close their eyes in a moment of meditation during Centner Academy’s preview as Miami Design District school on Aug 21, 2019.

Centner last week told faculty and staff in a letter that she made the decision to adopt the new policy with a “very heavy heart.” She listed reasons rooted in misinformation about why the vaccine is dangerous. She added that she was “compelled to take action.”

‘Health Freedom’

“I believe strongly in Health Freedom and “my body, my choice” and for that reason, did not prevent employees from choosing to take the COVID-19 vaccine prior to April 21, 2021,” she wrote. “However, reports have surfaced recently of non-vaccinated people being negatively impacted by interacting with people who have been vaccinated.”

Centner asked staff who had already taken the vaccine to report that to the school and maintain physical distance from students. She also required all employees to disclose the information by completing a confidential form.

Spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines without citing scientific evidence or even quoting a medical expert can diminish much of the messaging behind the measures that public health officials have taken to try and control the spread of the virus, said Dr. Aileen Marty, a physician and infectious disease specialist with Florida International University’s Wertheim College of Medicine.

Marty said she read the email to parents and found it “very sad.” Because it was written by the school’s co-founder, Marty said, parents might assume the statements are supported by science when there is no evidence that individuals who receive a COVID vaccine pose a risk of “transmitting something from their bodies” that would harm others.

“It gives the illusion that she’s basing it on facts,” Marty said of the letter, “but there’s not one citation, there’s not one physician or scientist whose name is spelled out in there. There’s no references. There’s nothing. There is no scientific evidence provided. Rumor is the only thing that’s there, and if you look at the reality, there’s zero, zero science behind those allegations.”

Marty added that unfounded statements such as those circulated in the letter can create a ripple effect of ignorance with the potential to undo much of the work that public health officials are doing to control the spread of the virus.

“If they believe it, and they then share this big lie, it has a horrific impact on our entire community,” she said.

COVID-19 continues to spread in Florida. The health department reported more than 3,500 new cases of the disease Monday, including more than 760 in Miami-Dade. Nearly 770,000 people have been fully vaccinated in the county.

Spreading misinformation

As new infections, hospitalizations and deaths due to the disease have surged and dipped statewide since the pandemic began in spring 2020, the school’s leaders have bucked preventive measures recommended by public health officials, a past employee of the school said.

A former teacher at Centner Academy told the Miami Herald in September that there was very little social distancing and wearing of masks, if any, among staff members while a mandatory mask order was in place in Miami-Dade County. The teacher said Leila Centner circulated misinformation about coronavirus and masks in group chats among teachers.

In the email to parents Monday, Leila Centner noted that the school was one of the first to reopen for in-person learning on Sept. 8, 2020. “We weighed the data and studied the research,” she wrote in the letter. “We knew then that children have a 99.9974% survival rate and are not super spreaders.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in January that less than 0.1% of children 17 years old and younger died of COVID-19 between March 1 and Dec. 12, 2020.

Since the reopening, the school has experienced a shakeup among teachers and administrators.

United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats slammed “education labor violations” at Centner Academy.

“These schools not only teach misinformation and peddle propaganda, they punish teachers who try to protect themselves and their families,” she said. “We are horrified by the unsafe conditions and labor violations that colleagues at schools such as this one have to endure due to lack of union representation and contract rights.”

Leila and David Centner moved from New York back to Miami, David’s hometown, to raise their two daughters. David Centner, who graduated from Coral Park Senior High and worked at Frankie’s Pizza, and his wife Leila, a businesswoman, made their fortune by selling their company, Highway Toll Administration, for an undisclosed amount.

Unsatisfied with the schooling options available locally, they opened Centner Academy in the Design District in 2019 as the first “Happiness School.” The school’s website prominently displays: “MEDICAL FREEDOM FROM MANDATED VACCINES.”

The school charges from $15,160 for part-time Pre-K 2 and $24,500 a year for K-5th grades. The Pre-K campus is housed at the original location in the Design District and the Elementary & Middle School campus is in the former ASPIRA charter school location.

The couple said several students from the surrounding neighborhood attend the school on scholarship. The school also offers teachers a chance to live in homes near the school and owned by the Centners for reduced rent.

The school has a chiropractor on staff to give adjustments to students and staff and practices meditation among students with the use of crystals.