School board: Masks on students for first two weeks

Dr. Mark Atkinson
Dr. Mark Atkinson

A second Alachua County Public School (ACPS) district custodian is dead from COVID-19.

That announcement at the beginning of the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) meeting on Tuesday night resonated as several pediatricians and UF Health epidemiologists gave personal accounts of treating patients of all ages and watching local ICU beds fill up with COVID-19 patients.

In a more than three-hour-long meeting, the SBAC voted unanimously to require students to wear masks for the first two weeks of school.

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After the approval of the updated and amended fall 2021 COVID-19 response plan that included the new language that students will wear masks from Aug. 10 to Aug. 24, ACPS Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon thanked the medical professionals, most of whom had children of their own enrolled in Alachua County schools. She also invited them to come back to the Aug. 17th regular meeting to give the SBAC an update.

“We appreciate your information and anything you can share,” Simon said.

It was that input from scientists and experts that SBAC attorney David Delaney said might protect the SBAC from backlash from Gov. Ron DeSantis as the mandate defies his order that all students have access to in-person learning and not be required to wear masks by school districts.

According to Delaney, pressure from Tallahassee might be off because the SBAC made a decision based on the current emergency status that has been communicated by local physicians and hospitals.

“It is significant info from professionals who delivered extremely significant facts,” he said. “From a legal perspective, emergency transport capacity has been exceeded.”

SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy said the move was worth the financial risk.

“I’d rather they come after our money than we lose our students because we are not listening to our scientists,” she said. 

After the vote, UF faculty member Dr. Mark Atkinson, a 37-year-veteran physician specializing in research to cure Type 1 Diabetes and a professor for the UF Department of Pathology and Pediatrics, came to the podium and apologized for being late.

Atkinson said that NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci enlisted his help in setting up research at UF Health in Gainesville, Jacksonville and at hospitals in Tampa to follow 1,200 patients.

“COVID is not a joke,” Atkinson said.

He held up a face mask and asked the board members if they had ever held a dying child. 

“It is hard, but the worst part is the talk with the mother, the father that says to you why,” he said. 

Atkinson called it “disgusting” that people are still debating the effectiveness of masks and applauded the board’s decision: “No guilt on your hands for having to answer why.”

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