The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) voted unanimously Tuesday night to extend its student mask mandate for eight weeks, a decision that could come with heavy consequences from the Florida Department of Education (FDOE).
Less than an hour before the school board meeting started, the State Board of Education (SBOE) voted unanimously to “use its enforcement powers to enforce the health protocols found in the Emergency Rule 64DER21-12 and protect the right of parents to make health and educational decisions for their children.”
The rule, which FDOE issued Aug. 6, allows parents of students to decide whether their child will wear a face mask while at school. Earlier this month the SBAC approved a face mask mandate for the first two weeks of school, through Aug. 24, but it requires a physician’s note for a student to opt out of wearing a mask for medical or psychological reasons.
Local pediatricians and medical personnel working in ICU departments at UF Health Shands and North Florida Regional Medical Center (NFRMC) testified to seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and admissions of more children suffering from the disease.
UF Health CEO Ed Jimenez said there is an “increase we haven’t seen before” with the rise of the delta variant.
“This current surge is more contagious and gets patients sicker, quicker,” he said.
He also told the board that health care workers are tired and burning out.
From the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2020, Shands had zero to three underage COVID-19 patients, Jimenez reported. From January to July 2021 the numbers fluctuated between one to three, but this month, the hospital has cared for between five and 12 kids at a time.
Of the minors currently at Shands Hospital, Jimenez said none are fully vaccinated, and six of 11 are not old enough to have received the vaccine.
Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UF Health Shands, applauded the SBAC for instituting the initial face mask requirement and requested the extension of another eight weeks.
“Our community is willing to stand up and do the right thing to protect our children,” she said, noting that there is currently a 27 percent positivity rate for pediatric patients.
She also reported seeing a rise in multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) in children that has been linked to COVID-19 and said the surge has not peaked yet.
“The recent model suggests the surge could peak in two to three weeks with a sharp decline after that,” Ryan said. “If we let up on masking, the peak will be higher with more hospitalizations.”
Ryan predicted the community could have a double peak with the University of Florida fall classes starting on Aug. 23.
More than 40 parents, students, and local pediatricians spoke to the SBAC during public comments. The comments regarding the mask mandate were equally for and against with three parents in opposition raising their voices and getting escorted out of the meeting room by Alachua County Sheriff’s deputies.
Outside the meeting, citizens held signs demonstrating support and disapproval of the school board’s actions.
Alachua County Board of County Commissioners Chair Ken Cornell—who declared a state of emergency on Aug. 5—thanked the SBAC for listening to local scientists and medical advisers. He encouraged them to “do all you can for the safety of your staff, teachers, families and children in the district.”
According to the State Board of Education, Tuesday’s decision will bring with it sanctions and punishment for both superintendents and board members of Alachua and Broward counties.
Tom Grady, chairman of the SBOE, amended the original motion to impose punishment by adding that the board authorize and direct FDOE Commissioner Richard Corcoran to “investigate further the conduct and acts of the superintendent and school board members,” which may include withholding funds from district salaries, removing officers, and submitting public record requests to make sure the superintendents and school board members aren’t spending money “inappropriately.”