Face mask policy dominates school board meeting

Some parents who spoke at Tuesday night’s School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) meeting asked the board to heed the CDC recommendation for unvaccinated persons to wear face masks in schools. But a majority of commenters were against a mask mandate—with some threatening to remove students from the district if masks are required.

More than two dozen comments came from pediatricians, parents, teachers and local hospital employees, many of whom referred to recent updated guidelines about face mask use in school systems for the 2021-22 school year which starts on Aug. 10.

“Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated,” the latest CDC guidelines say

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The American Academy of Pediatrics went a step further this week, calling for universal masking in schools for everyone over age 2, regardless of their vaccination status.

School districts throughout the state are still weighing the face mask issue. Broward County Public Schools, the sixth-largest school district in the United States with more than 261,000 students, will decide on the issue during a July 27 workshop.

One solution offered by several commenters at the SBAC meeting Tuesday was to designate some classrooms in school as face masks only and find a way to schedule students.

The board members said they have been receiving a high volume of phone calls and emails about the mask issue.

During board member and superintendent comments at the end of the meeting SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy acknowledged that there are strong positions on both sides of the issue.

“I worry when I’m hearing so many people say you don’t have to worry about our younger children,” she said. “Whether you are for masks or not, I would never ever want one of our kids to get ill or be hospitalized.”

Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) announced in May that masks would be optional for the 2021-22 school year, but the board will make a final decision when it approves the district reopening plan at the Aug. 3 meeting.

None of the board members would commit to where they stand on the face mask issue because they said the situation is fluid as UF Health medical experts, the Florida Department of Health and the School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) are monitoring COVID-19 and its variant trends.

Evelyn Quirk speaks to the School Board of Alachua County

Superintendent Carlee Simon said she and her staff would prepare a reopening plan and leave the masking issue portion undecided until they hear the board’s decision in two weeks.

Among all of the adults speaking, one student also spoke to the board. Evelyn Quirk, who is entering 7th grade in two weeks, downplayed the impact of masks on students.

“Masking children has been dramatized,” she said. “It’s not that big of a deal. They are a little weird at first, but then you forget it’s there.”

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