SBAC keeps student mask policy until Dec. 6

Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) students will continue to mask up through Dec. 6 unless they have a medical opt-out.

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) voted 3-2 Tuesday night in favor of continuing current policy through Dec. 6th. From Dec. 7 to 17th, parents will be able to opt out their students, and upon return from winter break, face masks will be optional.

As the SBAC was discussing the motion for the new policy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a statement recommending a pediatric COVID-19 vaccine based on unanimous approval from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for Pfizer’s one-third strength vaccine for children ages 5 through 11.

The vote happened after testimony from local medical experts who advised following CDC recommendations for continued indoor masking, even while acknowledging transmission and positivity rates are on the decline.

Board member Tina Certain offered a motion to continue current mitigation strategies through Dec. 17, but board member Rob Hyatt offered the amended motion that ended up passing with board members Dr. Gunnar Paulson and Mildred Russell in dissent.

ACPS Covid Response Team Leader Prescott Cowles reported to the board that 26 students tested positive in the school district in the past two weeks and that zero staff members tested positive in the same time period.

Cowles said the new COVID-19 case rate of 58.7 per 100,000 is still above the desired number of less than 50, which keeps Alachua County in the substantial transmission rate category.

“Staff cases are down to zero for the first time in a long time thanks to vaccine and mitigation efforts,” Cowles said, adding that most cases are from students and employees in elementary schools. He said last week the employee vaccination rate reached 69.8 percent, aligning with the community rate.

Only about five people commented on both sides of the face mask issue before the vote—compared to previous meetings where dozens of people spoke on the issue.

Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a UF Health expert in pediatric infectious diseases, urged parents to consider having their children vaccinated as soon as possible.

“Hours ago the CDC and ACIP voted to approve the [Pfizer] vaccine for ages 5 to 11,” she said. “We expect to begin in the next couple of weeks setting up schools, drive-thrus and pediatric offices. The vaccine remains the best tool to end the pandemic.”

Ryan addressed concerns about long-term vaccine effects, saying that there has never been a long-term proven negative effects from vaccines and that clean technology provides vaccines that deliver the message and then disappear.

“We have one pediatric death in Alachua County and we are heart broken,” she said. “We want this to be zero.”

Dr. Adrienne Mott-Young, a UF Health pediatrician, recommended layered mitigation to the end of winter break.

“We need ample time to brainstorm methods to dispense the vaccine for 5-11 year-olds,” she said.

When Certain offered the original motion, she said she was following state law that requires school boards to create “safe work and learning environments” for students and staff.

Alachua County School Board member Mildred Russell

Russell, who was the only SBAC member on the dais not wearing a face mask, disagreed about a continued mask requirement.

“We need to lift this and give parents the choice,” she said. 

Paulson, the longest serving member on the board, agreed with Russell.

“We need to lift this mask [rule],” he said. “This is the time to do it.”

Paulson said he based his decision on the low positivity rate of 2.7 reported on Oct. 29.

But Hyatt argued that the reason the district has lowered the amount of cases and the positivity rate is “because we have the mitigation strategies.”

“Regardless of court decisions that are to come, I feel comfortable with the votes I have taken on these issues,” Hyatt said. “For parents against masking, I hear you, I appreciate your thoughtful presentations, and none of us is smart enough to know everything. At least we’re saying come 2022, it’s mask optional.”

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