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School board extends masking until November 15 with high school parental opt-out starting October 19

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the October 5 Alachua County School Board meeting, the board decided to extend their mask mandate through November 15 but allow parental opt-out for high schoolers starting October 19. Grades K-8 will still need a medical exemption form signed by a doctor or nurse practitioner to opt out of masking.

In board discussion after presentations from University of Florida medical advisors and comments from the public, Member Tina Certain said she agreed with one of the doctors, who had suggested that the district’s mask mandate continue for 9 weeks past the current expiration date of October 19 so that children in the 5-11 age group can be vaccinated. She said they could have parent opt-out for 12 and up, “but it would really be best to say high-schoolers because in the middle school, I think it would be too much of a burden on the teachers to try to distinguish between the two, but I am leery of rolling back the mandate at this point for fear of a spike… We may have to go back… and I think that’s what our community will need to know.” She added that any change in policy would start after the current policy ends on October 18. 

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Member Gunnar Paulson said the board needs “to be meeting more often and kept up on things” so they could discuss what they might want to do after the 4-week extension of the masking policy. He also said he wanted to have a discussion about the September 22 emergency rule from the Department of Health (although he said it was from the governor) “instead of just shooting in the dark.”

Member Rob Hyatt asked Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon for her recommendation. Simon recommended parental opt-out for children who are eligible for the vaccine. “I think parent opt-out would benefit the district in the sense that we would have a form that we would be able to track and collect so we could also really understand how many students are in our schools that have the exemption, and then for the students who are not old enough to have the vaccine, they remain masked until the vaccine has been released and five weeks after that date to have full immunity, and then I think it’s time to perhaps have the discussion of allowing the parent exemption at all grade levels.”

Hyatt said he would be in favor of having “a workshop specific to where we are on COVID” every other week to “get a jump on the next move we need to make.”

Member Mildred Russell said the advisors had told them that the infections are going down and “we’re in a much better place now than we were before. I think it would be good if we honored the State’s opt-out for parents, if they want to opt out, at their sole discretion, which is the new rule. I think we should give them that. Children who want to wear masks, parents who want their children to wear masks, can do so, but there’s information all over the place to justify just about any position a person wants to take.”

Chair Leanetta McNealy said, “Inasmuch as we’ve done what we’ve done to mitigate COVID among our children, I certainly think that masking… if we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t be seeing we have come down so dramatically… if I’m seeing numbers decrease, then I want to continue in that manner… We’ve got two sets of parents,” one set that wants their children to go to school without masks, and the other set that wants their children “to be protected… We have lost so many teachers already to resignations… we need to protect our folk. It’s not just the kids; it’s our staff… I’m for masking. In fact, we can mask until June… I’m listening to the doctors… [at] the University of Florida, although we have one mistake who just got appointed, but the University of Florida has some great physicians and doctors, and that’s who we depend on in our community.”

Paulson said he didn’t want to make long-term decisions right now but meet more often and look at the statistics, but since he has to care for his wife, it’s difficult for him to come to in-person meetings more often. McNealy proposed Zoom meetings, but Certain said they’re not allowed to vote on Zoom any more, though they could possibly have Zoom workshops. 

McNealy said, “We’re not going to take a victory lap, however we want to continue with all of the things that we do in order to make our schools safe and livable… [Masks are] something that we need to get accustomed to. This is something that we need.” She talked about all the vaccines that children have to have before enrolling in kindergarten, “the same with this one.”

Certain made a motion to extend their masking policy for grades K-5 with medical opt-out for 4 weeks (after October 19) and have parental opt-out for 12 and above, and then they’ll revisit it. Hyatt seconded the motion.

Russell asked whether the medical opt-out would be at the sole discretion of the parent, and Certain said, “No, ma’am… for 12 and above, it would be a parent opt-out.”

Simon said that 11-year-olds are “a little bit of a complication” in middle schools. Hyatt asked whether it would be “problematic” for middle school staff where there would be different opt-out rules based on age, and Simon said they would be able to work it out. 

McNealy asked what they would do if cases started to rise, and Simon said she talks to her medical advisors “every single day for the last two weeks; if not that, it’s every other day… It is something that’s unpredictable… this is something that we will talk about, that when it gets to a level that we may have to have masks again, we will do this in consultation with all the doctors.”

McNealy started to move to a vote, but Prescott Cowles, who is on the district’s COVID Response Team, said, “as a former middle school teacher… if you are a sixth grader who is not yet 12, you are not yet eligible to get vaccinated, you don’t have that level of protection. There are classes where you will be with students who are eligible to be vaccinated, and under this motion, they would be eligible to opt out of wearing their masks. So those sixth graders, those 11-year-olds who do not have that level of protection, would be exposed to students who are potentially unvaccinated and potentially opting out, which my understanding is not in what the intent of the motion is… that doesn’t quite make sense.”

McNealy said Cowles had “hit right on target.” Certain modified the motion to require a medical opt-out through grade 8, with parental opt-out for high school only. Hyatt agreed with the change. 

The vote on the motion was 4-1, with Russell in dissent.

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