How the Centner Academy Became a Beacon for Anti-Vaxxers

Ms. Centner, an avid social media user who has long used her accounts to document her luxurious lifestyle, took effective control of the ...


Ms. 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.”

Credit…Romain Maurice/Getty Images For Haute Living

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 Ms. Centner brought her anti-vaccination and anti-masking views into the school’s day-to-day life, turning what had been a tightknit 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 on Friday.

David J. 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 — Ms. 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.

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