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School board extends mask policy through December 6

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the November 2 Alachua County School Board meeting, the board voted to extend the current masking policy through December 6.

Although Chair Leanetta McNealy did not address the photo taken of her at the O’Connell Center without a mask at “The Price is Right Live” on October 26, she formally announced that citizens who spoke to the board would not need to wear masks, just for this one meeting: “It was brought to my attention that two citizens addressed the board at the last meeting maskless, if that’s a decent word. Because of my error, I do apologize and will officially withdraw masking at the podium and microphone during this board meeting this evening. However, I ask respectfully that you keep your mask on in this board room through the duration of the meeting.”

Board Member Mildred Russell did not wear a mask on the dais, and nothing was said during the meeting.

Staff presentation

The agenda item on the mask policy began with a presentation from Prescott Cowles, who reviewed the policies so far: Board Policy 8450.01 (a permanent policy) covers “Protective Facial Coverings during Pandemic/Epidemic Events.” On August 3, the school board decided to require masks for the first two weeks of school. On August 6, the State Board of Education added the Hope Scholarship opt-out option by Emergency Rule. (Cowles’ presentation did not mention the message sent to district families on August 6, letting them know that only exemptions from physicians would be accepted.)  On August 17, the board extended the mask requirement for an additional eight weeks, through October 18. On October 5, the board extended the mask requirement for K-8 through November 15 and moved grades 9-12 to parental opt-out, effective October 19. Since the next board meeting is November 16, the board needed to make a decision about what happens after November 15.

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Cowles then showed a national map, saying that “most of the country is still in high levels of community transmission.” He also showed a map of Florida showing Alachua County at “substantial” levels of transmission, while all surrounding counties except Marion are at “moderate” levels. Those surrounding counties do not currently have mask mandates in schools; Marion is the only one that has had one in this school year.

He also showed a table of how the case and positivity levels had changed over time, saying “the trends are promising, but we’re not quite there yet.”

The colors are different in the first two columns because the CDC’s metrics for positivity and case rates often don’t match up. So a region can be in “low” transmission for positivity (as Alachua County has been since October 1) but in “substantial” transmission when using the cases metric–at the same time.

The next chart showed the county’s positivity rates since June. Cowles said that we will drop into the yellow range if we get below 50 cases/100k population this week (today’s report has Alachua County at 38.9 cases/100k population).

Another chart showed the number of parental opt-out forms submitted for the various high schools and the percentage of students in each school submitting opt-out forms. A total of 98 students across all grades have submitted medical exemptions forms.

Board Member Gunnar Paulson pointed out that the county’s positivity rate had been in the “blue” zone for five weeks, but Cowles said that since the higher metric takes precedence the county has actually been in the “orange” zone in that time period.

UF Health doctors

Dr. Kathleen Ryan from UF Health told the board, “We’re getting there, slowly but surely… We are seeing very few cases in outpatient clinics now, and we currently don’t have any pediatric patients that are admitted with acute COVID, and we don’t have any cases of MIS-C that are admitted right now, either… The CDC still recommends indoor masking for students, staff, teachers, and visitors in K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status. The AAP hasn’t changed its policy, either… and just a couple of hours ago, the CDC and the ACIP unanimously voted to approve the Pfizer vaccine in the 5-11-year-old age group… We’re all very excited about this… We would like to recommend that we continue the masking requirement with the medical opt-out for the elementary and middle school students, at least until the end of November, and then we revisit… The simpler and more conservative thing to recommend would be to just continue what we’re doing in the elementary and middle schools until after the winter holidays, to let even more kids get vaccinated and make sure that we don’t have any spikes because of the holiday.”

Dr. Adrienne Mott-Young, also from UF Health, agreed with Dr. Ryan’s recommendations, adding, “Please know that whenever we make decisions, we are always weighing the balance between protecting the physical health of children, in regards to COVID, and protecting their mental and emotional well-being, as well… At this moment, however, we have to continue to keep our children as safe as we possibly can from this illness that, as we all have seen, has such potential to cause such catastrophic effects on individuals, family units, and the community as a whole… We ask that you strongly consider continuing the mask mandate, preferably to the end of winter break… By allowing the mask mandate to stay in effect until the end of winter break, this will hopefully allow the opportunity to get as many students in the 5-11-year-old age range vaccinated as possible… We all agree that when the pandemic is even less of a threat to everyone, and when everyone in our schools is deemed eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, then we should at that point be in a much better place to initiate parental opt-out decisions for our elementary and middle-school-aged children, as well.” 

Board discussion

Member Tina Certain moved that they continue the current masking policy through December 17, keeping medical opt-out only for elementary and middle school students. McNealy seconded the motion. 

Earlier in the meeting, McNealy had announced that the phone system had “crashed,” so only the people in the room were able to comment on the mask agenda item (the phone system came back up before the final general public comment period). Two speakers favored continuing the mask mandate, and two opposed it.

“I know there’s a motion on the floor, but I think we need to lift this and give parents the choice. Let them decide for their children whether they want to continue questionable health and safety practices with the masks.” – Member Mildred Russell

When the discussion moved back to the board, Russell brought up the comparison of cases/1000 students between P.K. Yonge (masks “expected”) and Alachua County Public Schools. The chart shows that the number of cases/1000 in the two systems was very similar, with P.K. Yonge actually a little lower, but the difference is not statistically significant. Russell continued, “We haven’t really looked at the pros and cons of young children wearing masks for long periods of time and the effectiveness of it–is it helping them or harming them? I think it should be the parent’s choice… I know there’s a motion on the floor, but I think we need to lift this and give parents the choice. Let them decide for their children whether they want to continue questionable health and safety practices with the masks.”

“I think it’d be better to lift the ban immediately.” – Member Gunnar Paulson

Paulson said he was “one of the first people on the board to support the masks… but after looking at the statistics… the last month have been under where we said we needed to be. It’s like a moving target. I really think we need to lift this mask thing… I think this is the time to do it… December 17?… It’s time to lift the ban… What’s the next target?… I really think we’re going to do more harm to education… long-term harm… I think it’d be better to lift the ban immediately.

[Our] duties and authority that we have… is in the state constitution, and we’re not overstepping that. At one point or another, each of us have lamented and commented on the overreach in Tallahassee towards local control on various issues, not just in schooling, but as well in our municipality and county government. And in this case right here, I do think it is an overreach.” – Member Tina Certain

Certain said, “P.K. Yonge is a smaller school environment than what the entire district is… there’s that… When we look at public health issues and communicable diseases in public places, a lot of people ignore the requirements and the things because the policies that are in place have worked. Nobody thinks of public health because we don’t have the communicable diseases; we don’t have MMR, we don’t have polio, we don’t have rubella, pertussis, because of the requirement that’s in place now… For me, it’s an issue of providing a safe working and learning environment… [Our] duties and authority that we have… is in the state constitution, and we’re not overstepping that. At one point or another, each of us have lamented and commented on the overreach in Tallahassee towards local control on various issues, not just in schooling, but as well in our municipality and county government. And in this case right here, I do think it is an overreach… It’s unfortunate that this is such an issue… that a special session could possibly be called to change the rule… I still leave it in the hands of medical science, and for the parents that don’t wish to mask their children, they do have options for which to come out.”

“Quite honestly, the Florida courts have not been friendly to us, and we know how that has worked. We know how the Florida Surgeon General got his position, and we also know there have been situations where faculty at the University of Florida have been told that they cannot speak and testify, in many cases.” – Superintendent Carlee Simon

Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon said she needed to give them additional information about the legal issues. She said it was “quite shocking” that the rule for quarantine was changed and suggested that they may want to implement a “test to stay” policy–testing on days 2 and 5 for children who stay in school after a COVID-19 exposure. “Quite honestly, the Florida courts have not been friendly to us, and we know how that has worked. We know how the Florida Surgeon General got his position, and we also know there have been situations where faculty at the University of Florida have been told that they cannot speak and testify, in many cases. So I think what’s going on is concerning, and I think it’s really for the board to decide how you balance your medical advisors and your legal advisors.”

Member Rob Hyatt said, “It’s not Dr. Simon, it’s the board that has to make these decisions… “Regardless of the court decisions that are to come, I feel comfortable with the votes that I’ve taken on these issues.” He offered a substitute motion to continue the current policy through December 6, which would give parents a chance to have their child vaccinated if that is their wish, with a move to parental opt-out on December 7 and then fully mask-optional in January.

There was some discussion about masking rules for staff, but the board attorney said that Simon sets the policies for staff.

“If this COVID continues in any manner, I can almost see the next governor who we have, will probably mandate things like we’re doing right now, with children who have to come into public schools… One of the things that I know, that we have superior backing from D.C… You do have parental rights: whether to have your children here, with masks, or deciding to do the Hope Scholarship, where you would choose to go elsewhere” – Chair Leanetta McNealy

McNealy said, “I am for masking. I want everyone to understand that, no matter what is being stated by the board members, this is my feeling about it… When we look at numbers, I look at just maybe the opposite, because you’re looking at the lowest numbers and the positivity rate and where we are. I’m looking at the big numbers on national news, local news, state news, with all of the people that we’ve lost since this pandemic… Believe me, when we come back from winter break, we’ll be talking about this again because of the fact of all of the travels that families going to be making, every single place… I want to even travel… We are going to probably face a surge…

“If this COVID continues in any manner, I can almost see the next governor who we have, will probably mandate things like we’re doing right now, with children who have to come into public schools… One of the things that I know, that we have superior backing from D.C… One of the things that I really like, when we started talking about parental rights and opting out… you do have parental rights: whether to have your children here, with masks, or deciding to do the Hope Scholarship, where you would choose to go elsewhere…

“I believe in all of these doctors in our system who talk to us… but yet we feel that we don’t have to listen… It is so important for us to listen to the scientists. I don’t care if the positivity rate is zero. It is important for us to listen to the people that we invited.” She said she hoped there would be funding for testing after winter break because “there is gonna be a spike somewhere. Some of you are going all the way to Europe, India, for the holiday… If we start losing staff… we already have a problem with subs; I’m just wondering who’s going to be placed in the classrooms… I would rather have a mask on my face and a teacher in the classroom than not to have… Just think about it… I hope the people who are watching us… will congratulate us. One of the things I’ve heard so much is our strength, our courage, our steadfastness on this issue.”

Russell asked whether the board could ask doctors with other perspectives to speak to the board. McNealy said she trusted that staff had written down that request.

The motion passed, 3-2, with Paulson and Russell in dissent.

  • another great report! Only the Alachua Chronicle keeps us informed about the details involved in our local government!
    No matter if you are “pro” or “anti” you get the facts about exactly what’s going on! What our elected officials are saying, doing & how they vote.

  • All the little kids getting vaccinated will have even more strain put on their hearts because of the masks – and not even being allowed to take them off for intermittent breaks. Don’t be surprised to see a “surge” of kids in the hospital (and some dying) from myocarditis. Maybe McNealy, Certain, Simon, and crew can go into the hospitals and heal the children’s hearts with their woke magic (aka “science”).

  • Why does Tina Certain have her bopper
    Hanging out in the picture with this article? What good
    Is that mask doing if she’s not wearing it properly??
    Wearing the mask like that is like not wearing a mask
    At all….can the children wear their masks like that?
    This is all total BS…they are wearing those stupid masks
    To hide their stupid faces….

    • …the photo is above that Superintendent Carlee Simon “Quite honestly”
      Quote…I thought it was Carlee Simon until I read the
      Name tag in the photo….I could be mistaken, but whomever it is, the nose is hanging out..

  • They need to suffer the consequences for not following
    Governor Desantis’ Rule about face masks…remove them from office and arrest all who force a mask on
    A child’s face…

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