The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) voted Tuesday to extend universal masking for elementary and middle school students while lifting the medical opt-out requirement for local high school students.
The new policy will start on Oct. 19.
The decision came during a contentious four-hour meeting that included both calls for Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon’s resignation and support for her stance on COVID-19 mitigation.
Dozens of commenters weighed in on issues throughout the night, but the topic of Simon’s performance came up repeatedly.
High Springs Vice Mayor Linda Jones said she was speaking as a citizen during the public comment portion of the meeting. She said the school district receives the highest portion of her tax bill and that she should “be able to speak about issues without fear of being escorted out.”
Jones was referring to SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy’s recent policy of removing speakers who talk negatively about the superintendent and other board members. Jones said people should not be escorted out for disagreeing.
“No one will always agree with the person at the top,” she said. “We have never seen such a divisive superintendent who continues to divide authorities in the state.”
Jones then said she is adding a “no confidence” in the superintendent discussion to the next High Springs Commission meeting agenda.
Five University of Florida medical experts from pediatrics and epidemiology spoke to the topic of declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and attributed the trends to the mitigation efforts put in place by the SBAC. But they warned that the battle against COVID-19 and its variants has not ended.
“We know the news is good, but the story is not done,” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute.
“Delta changed the game,” he said, adding that it is 10,000 times more prevalent than previous strains. He said Alachua County still falls in the high transmission category with trends going in the right direction, but, “It’s not time to let down our guard.”
Following the expert testimony, the SBAC decided to continue the district’s masking requirement for students under 12—who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine—unless they have a medical opt out.
High school students may opt out of wearing face coverings with parental permission starting Oct. 19, when the previous policy expires.
Board member Dr. Rob Hyatt also requested that the board discuss COVID-19 data more often than every two weeks so the policy can change sooner, if needed.
The current vaccination rate for Alachua County residents ages 12 and up is 70 percent, according to the medical experts at the meeting.
Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Epidemiology at UF told the SBAC that the Food and Drug Administration plans to review vaccine data for children ages 5 to 11 on Oct. 26 and they may have a recommendation a few days after that.
“Until then, we can protect the 5- to 11-year-olds by getting vaccinated,” she said.
Board member Mildred Russell dissented in the vote that maintains medical exemptions for face mask opt outs for elementary and middle school students.
“Rates are going down, we are in a much better place than we were before,” she said. “It would be good if we honor the state’s opt-out rule for parents.”
The school district and the state are locked in multiple legal battles over the mask mandate. On Thursday Simon will appear before the State Board of Education, which is considering additional sanctions against the board for its existing policy.
Russell echoed the state’s position that parents should decide whether their children wear masks.
“Masks are not that effective,” she said. “There are so many unknowns, absolutes and non-absolutes. Give parents the choice of whether to send students to school with a mask.”
“In as much as we have done to mitigate COVID among our children, if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be saying we have come down,” she said, citing a fourth grader who called in stating he was in favor of keeping face masks because it lowered the amount of people in who end up in the hospital.
“A fourth grader at Rawlings [Elementary School],” she said. “To know the difference, we’re sitting here with scientists and medical folk.”