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School board adds parental opt-out of masking for all grades

Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon at the November 10 Emergency School Board Meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

During today’s Emergency Special Meeting of the Alachua County School Board, called by Member Robert Hyatt to discuss the district’s mask mandate, the board voted to come into compliance with the Department of Health emergency rule requiring parental opt-out of mask mandates and parental choice about quarantine of asymptomatic students.

Hyatt led off by saying that last week he “made a proposal which I thought was very reasonable; I still think it’s very reasonable… I think it’s logical. I think it’s fair, but I am at odds, obviously, with the courts. I’m at odds, and we’ve all been at odds with the position of the State for a while. I do want to say that I’m proud of this board for extending, to the extent possible, the masks for protection… For me, it wasn’t ever about anything other than doing the best we can… We have basically no way forward in the courts, and I think it’s… time to put this aside… We also have lowering numbers, we all know that could change, but we are in a better position than we’ve been in quite a while… If I had my full choice as to what would be the ideal situation, I would keep it going to December. I don’t see that as plausible.”

Hyatt continued, “I move that we end the mask mandate and come into full compliance with requirements by the State.”

Member Mildred Russell seconded the motion but added, “I believe that we also, however, need to address the quarantine part of our compliance.”

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Member Gunnar Paulson asked the board attorney, David Delaney, whether full compliance would include compliance with the provision that asymptomatic students do not have to quarantine after being identified as a contact of someone with COVID-19, and Delaney responded, “Yes, sir.”

Chair Leanetta McNealy asked, “If there is a surge or whatever, is there a possibility of saying in this motion that we will have to do something different than what we are voting on today?”

Delaney responded, “That would not be considered to be in full compliance. I think we would still be facing the same litigation environment… I believe that our policy would continue to be challenged as not being in full compliance if we build in triggers to bring back up a mask mandate without a parental opt-out or a different quarantine policy than is in the Department of Health rule.”

“I don’t think we’re out of compliance. I think our whole premise of this was following the constitutional duties that we have outlined for us in providing a safe working and learning environment.” – Member Tina Certain

Member Tina Certain said, “I don’t think we’re out of compliance. I think our whole premise of this was following the constitutional duties that we have outlined for us in providing a safe working and learning environment.” She asked to provide a substitute motion that parental opt-out for masking for grades K-8 would be in place until December 17, then move to mask-optional after winter break.

Hyatt said that Certain mentioned “something that is SO important, and that is Article V of the Florida Constitution, which charges the State to provide, among other things, a safe learning environment… Ms. Certain is 100% right… I think we have done everything that we could.” He seconded Certain’s substitute motion.

Russell said the district should be “immediately in full compliance. No mask mandates, no quarantine of healthy students… There is really no other road for us… and there’s really no reason to think that the children are not in a safe environment… COVID cases have… gone below the false positive rate, so there’s no reason to think that there is imminent danger in our classrooms any longer.”

“We can do irreparable harm to public education if we get them where they want to do things in a special legislative session. Irreparable harm. Could be 10-20 years’ worth. I think we need to think about that.” – Member Gunnar Paulson

Paulson warned that “We can do irreparable harm to public education if we get them where they want to do things in a special legislative session. Irreparable harm. Could be 10-20 years’ worth. I think we need to think about that.”

Because of the combination of all of those actions we’ve taken collectively as an organization, we have the low numbers that we have now. Those numbers didn’t just happen; they happened because of direct and specific actions that we’ve taken.” – Certain

Certain said, “The authority that we have has a lot to do with local control and the authority that the board has that’s outlined in the constitution in Article IX… I think we’ve done well as a board and I commend our staff in managing through this process… our goal, my main goal has been since this all started… to provide a safe work and learning environment, and that entailed having a policy in place that would allow us to take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID… Because of the combination of all of those actions we’ve taken collectively as an organization, we have the low numbers that we have now. Those numbers didn’t just happen; they happened because of direct and specific actions that we’ve taken… I think as we sit here as elected officials, I think we also have to be concerned with the authority that we have and the encroachment upon that authority by other organizations, by other legislative bodies. It’s unfortunate that we’ve had to be on this particular path with the other districts in trying to maintain the authority to make the decisions here that’s closest to our constituents… We haven’t pleased everyone, but I think the big majority of our staff have been pleased with the path that we’ve taken because we’ve shown that we have their best interests at heart and wanted to keep them safe and healthy as best we could… We’ve done the best that we could with the tools that we had available to us.”

Certain added, “I know for our staff it’s going to be much more work in the next few weeks, but I appreciate the effort that they’ve put forth, and I think they will still embrace the additional burden of record-keeping to provide just a little bit more time for the younger students to get vaccinated.”

“I don’t understand the need for all this language when we’re basically accomplishing the same thing, where people are free to do whatever they choose to do, however they arrive at that decision, it’s their decision to make, and we are accomplishing the same result without having a lot of forms to fill out… I don’t see the need for doing anything other than rescinding the mask mandate.” – Member Mildred Russell

Russell argued that the only different between parental opt-out and mask-optional is paperwork: “If we rescind the mask mandate, parents who want their children to wear masks can wear masks… Those who don’t want to, whatever their reasons, are free not to do that, but it’s not creating an extra burden on our schools and paperwork and not creating extra work for the staff… I don’t understand the need for all this language when we’re basically accomplishing the same thing, where people are free to do whatever they choose to do, however they arrive at that decision, it’s their decision to make, and we are accomplishing the same result without having a lot of forms to fill out… I don’t see the need for doing anything other than rescinding the mask mandate.”

Paulson said, “I agree with Mrs. Russell, she’s exactly right… You’re running a big risk, especially if you want local control. That will be the most important thing in the legislature if we continue on this path.”

Simon clarified that the decision would only apply to students because policies for staff are her responsibility: “I will tell you that in my discussions with teachers, my team… This would give us additional time to collect data that would be useful… I think walking away slowly should be something the board considers because I know this is of importance to our staff… And in order to be in compliance with 64DER21-15, it is just for the parent exemption.”

“Yes, there’s paperwork to fill out, but there’s also paperwork to fill out when you are admitted to a hospital. I want very much to be safe for our students, safe for our instructional staff, safe for our staff here at the district office, and all of our essential workers… everybody counts. Everyone.” – Chair Leanetta McNealy

McNealy said she thought that triggers needed to be included in the motion: “I am certainly still fearful of what could happen, and that’s why I questioned today whether we could insert something… of what’s the possibility of our numbers going back up… My opinion is just as strong as Mrs. Russell.. we need to have some sort of clause that will stipulate what we are doing with the opt-out plan. Yes, there’s paperwork to fill out, but there’s also paperwork to fill out when you are admitted to a hospital. I want very much to be safe for our students, safe for our instructional staff, safe for our staff here at the district office, and all of our essential workers… everybody counts. Everyone… I am definitely for where we are… I’m sticking with that, no matter how the vote goes today.”

“The legislature sees things a lot different than I do, and they have for about 20 years. I don’t think we can count on much positive for public education coming out of the proposed legislature… We can’t risk a further war with the DOE, or even worse, the BOE. We can’t risk having case law on the book that’s going to hamper schools for years and years and years to come.” – Member Robert Hyatt

Hyatt said, “The legislature sees things a lot different than I do, and they have for about 20 years. I don’t think we can count on much positive for public education coming out of the proposed legislature… We can’t risk a further war with the DOE, or even worse, the BOE. We can’t risk having case law on the book that’s going to hamper schools for years and years and years to come.” He asked Delaney whether they would be in compliance with the emergency rule if the motion passed.

Delaney said, “I think the board would need to address the quarantine issue and make it clear that there’s no daylight between the board’s position and the emergency rule.”

Hyatt said, “In the interest of seeing if we can get most everybody to agree, if I could restate and say that we will be in full compliance with state regulations, both from the DOE and the DOH and that we will continue a mask mandate with full parental opt-out beginning Friday, November 12, through December 17, and then when we come back on January 4, that we will be mask-optional… It assures every parent that as of 2022, we have mask-optional.”

Because Simon had advocated for making the policy effective Monday because many employees are taking the day off on Friday, Hyatt said, “With all respect to Dr. Simon, I understand her saying Friday’s a weird day… there needs to be a feeling of and an understanding of, we are not pushing this back. This is a decision that happens now and goes into effect Friday… I feel like there’s a signal to be sent that we’re going to be in compliance as soon as possible.”

Paulson interjected, “I think this is too complicated, I think the original motion that we’re in full compliance covers everything… We’re just kicking it down the road… Mrs. Russell said it very clearly… In my opinion, we don’t need to keep doing this. We’ve covered everything, people can wear a mask… but it’s gone too far.”

Public comment was mostly in favor of ending the current policy, with some callers asking the board to implement a fully mask-optional policy, some supporting the motion as stated, and some asking for the mask mandate to continue.

Near the end of public comment, Alachua County Education Association President Carmen Ward said she “wanted to clarify that the federal guideline for transportation is still in place, that there’s still a mask mandate on our buses to keep our students safe… I do think that this board has made decisions that were for the safety of the students. I care not at all about compliance with rules that are not about the safest environment in our schools.”

The motion passed 3-2, with Paulson and Russell in dissent because they wanted the district to move to a fully mask-optional policy immediately.

Alachua County Public Schools sent out the following statement following the meeting:

Following a special meeting this afternoon, the School Board of Alachua County has voted to allow the parents/guardians of all students to opt their child out of wearing a mask in school beginning Friday, November 12.  Of course, students may continue to wear masks if their families wish.

Masks would become optional when students return from the Winter Break on January 4.

Due to federal regulations, students will still be required to wear masks on school buses.

Families who wish to opt out their child should fill out the mask opt out form available at www.sbac.edu/COVID19. The form should be returned to your child’s school.

In keeping with Florida Department of Health rule 64DER21-15, parents will determine whether their asymptomatic child must quarantine after having close contact with a positive COVID case. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommend quarantines for those who have had close contact.

The School Board’s decision has been made in light of recent legal decisions and a special session of the Florida Legislature set to begin on Monday. State lawmakers are expected to vote on legislation that would prevent any district from adopting mask requirements due to COVID-19.

ACPS will continue to maintain other COVID-related protocols, including the use of air purifiers, frequent hand-washing, etc. We are also working with the Alachua County Health Department to offer COVID vaccinations in schools for families that want them.

Fortunately, COVID cases and quarantines among students and staff have dropped dramatically since mid-to-late August. Positive cases have fallen from a high of more than 300 to four so far this week, while quarantines are down from more than 1800 to fewer than 50 today.

We appreciate the efforts of teachers and staff, families and students to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and community.  

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