Local parent frustrated by revocation of mask exemption after 3 weeks of school


Nichole Carlisle of Archer wants parents to have a choice about whether their children in the public schools have to wear masks. She is upset with the Alachua County School Board’s defiance of the law as stated in the Parents Bill of Rights and Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule 64-DER21-12. Carlisle says this disregard of the law has had a direct negative impact on her son Maddux, who is a fifth-grader at Archer Elementary and struggles with dyslexia. All last year, Maddux wore a mask, and the family followed the mandates, despite the growing frustration that Maddux felt as he struggled to learn. Carlisle explained that Maddux wears glasses and had problems with his glasses fogging up, causing him to lose concentration as he worked to learn to read and write. Carlisle explained that the issues compounded each other: “Imagine being a child that is struggling to make sense of words, and now on top of it you can’t see through your glasses.” 

As the new school year approached, it looked to Carlisle like her hopes of ditching the mask would be fulfilled. Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon announced on April 23 that masks would be optional in the summer and fall, but the school board voted on August 3 to require masks for at least the first two weeks of schools. On August 6, the Florida Department of Health issued the emergency rule, stating that parents must be allowed to opt out of school mask mandates, and on August 7, the school district sent out an email notifying parents that only exemptions signed by a  “licensed medical doctor, a licensed osteopathic physician or a licensed advanced registered nurse practitioner” would be accepted. School started on August 10.

Carlisle had thought that the Parents Bill of Rights gave her the right to sign an exemption form herself; even when the district said that only medical exemption forms would be accepted, it seemed logical that she could help Maddux with this struggle by obtaining a signed exemption form from the medical professional who was treating him for the problem described on the exemption form.

Maddux has a 504 Plan, a plan developed to ensure that a child who has a disability receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment. Since Maddux’s 504 Plan is for his dyslexia, Carlisle got the exemption from a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. The principal and teachers at Archer Elementary supported Carlisle’s request and initially accepted her exemption form. 

Maddux attended school without a mask for three weeks, then Carlisle received a call from the school explaining that Alachua County Public Schools would no longer recognize the exemption form because it was not signed by a medical doctor.

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Despite the fact that Maddux’s 504 Plan was signed by the therapist that works with Maddux’s disability, the school district would not recognize the mask exemption, which was directly tied to his identified disability. It seems arbitrary to Carlisle that a 504 Plan can be signed by a mental health care professional, but mental health care professionals are excluded from signing mask exemptions.

After learning that her exemption was denied, Carlisle decided to keep Maddux home and seek an exemption from his pediatrician. Maddux missed a full week of classes while waiting for an appointment with his pediatrician, but they were able to get the exemption form signed by Maddux’s pediatrician earlier this week. Carlisle feels that this was excessively burdensome, given that Maddux has a recognized disability and is already allowed exemptions and accommodations. 

Carlisle says she does not fault anyone at Archer Elementary; she said they have done everything in their power to support Maddux. But she does fault Superintendent Carlee Simon and the Alachua County School Board for putting these demands on local schools and students. She feels that school personnel have been put in a tough situation in which they have to decide between breaking state law or breaking the rules of the Alachua County School Board and being disciplined or fired. Carlisle thinks that the arbitrary rules, combined with a lack of more effective interventions, such as better ventilation systems, have undermined trust in the School Board’s guidance. 

Carlisle also highlighted the danger that the Alachua County School Board’s decision to not follow state law will cause children to think that they don’t need to follow rules. “If you disagree with a rule, the right answer is to fight it in proper channels, not openly defy it.” She asks the Alachua County School Board to follow state law and not put children, parents, and local schools in a situation that forces them to have to decide which rule to break. Carlisle wants her son to stay at Archer Elementary. She has explored sending Maddux to another county but feels that Maddux deserves to have a normal school experience at the school he loves. As of Tuesday, September 7, Maddux was back in school with a signed exemption. But for Carlisle, the fight between Alachua County Public Schools and Governor DeSantis feels far from over.