BY JENNIFER CABRERA
The decision about whether to make masks optional or mandatory for the fall semester wasn’t on the agenda for the July 20 meeting of the Alachua County School Board, but nearly all of those who showed up for public comment spoke about the issue.
Just before public comment, Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon said, “We are working on the reopening plan, and we will be presenting the reopening plan at the next board meeting. It will be shared for the public to review a week before the board meeting, but one of the things that I need to discuss with you all because I need some guidance. As many know, the governor has shared his thoughts on the mask mandates, as well as the Commissioner of Education. There is a court decision that also will have a level of impact on this decision, and no longer are we in Florida in a state of emergency. When we’re in a state of emergency, the policy put me as the person who would make the decisions on the masks, whether they’re mandatory or optional, and since we are no longer in this position, this is now something where the school district will need the guidance of the board… My expectation and hope would be that at the end of this meeting, we would have an idea of the direction that the board would like to go… I’m hoping that at the end of the meeting, you all can make a recommendation” so staff can work on the reopening plan document, and the board would take a formal vote on masks at the next board meeting.
During public comment, 14 people spoke in favor of making masks mandatory, and 19 people spoke in favor of making masks optional. Three people spoke about Critical Race Theory, one stating that training materials for teachers encourage them to treat students differently based on their race, and two stating that Critical Race Theory is not taught in Alachua County schools.
Pediatrician Dr. Nancy Worthington spoke during public comment, saying, “This has been the saddest year of my life, taking care of children. If you think that there’s no psychological impact to masking children, come spend a day with me. I’ve never seen anything like it. Children are being Baker Acted—we can’t even get appointments at UF Psychiatry or Psychology; they’re backed up, they will not take appointments any more. So we have become the psychologist and the counselors… We know the children are not the secret drivers of this. We KNOW that. We know the states that opened up, the schools that opened up, are doing better than the people that locked down… Decisions based on fear are affecting our children. Anxiety is epidemic… The adults are vaccinated, the children that aren’t old enough to be vaccinated are not at risk. Their risk is almost zero; it’s beyond close to zero… The AAP, when they are telling you to mask a 2-year-old, they went for the vaccine. I don’t have any other good explanation for that… You don’t put children on the front line for adults. It’s just not done. It’s wrong. I’m a pediatrician, I can’t agree with what the AAP has said… Please, please make masks optional.”
After public comment, Board Member Tina Certain said there may be limitations on local decision-making, but she would prefer having “opt-in spaces” where “students who were not able to be vaccinated could be.” She said she was vaccinated but was continuing to choose to wear a mask. “As much as I want to be in a more closed and sterile environment, that’s just not the way I think we can go at this point.”
Dr. Simon said that the Health Department had funding to bring 30 nurses into the schools in addition to the nurses that are already there, and the nurses would help with contact tracing and educating. She said some students will choose to wear masks even if they are optional. She said they have discussed having some mask-only classrooms, but that is logistically difficult. She said they do have eSchool and hospital homebound, and there may be other “creative approaches” for individuals who don’t want to come to school “in the event that it’s a mask-optional discussion.”
Chair Leanetta McNealy said most of the comments had been about elementary or middle school-aged children, so she thought it seemed like “we’re pretty okay with our situation with our high schoolers,” but she wanted to speak about elementary school. “I’m here to tell you, without saying what my vote will be on the third of August, I’m very, very concerned about all of the parents who said tonight, and others, and in our emails, all of the things they’re seeing about young children who have to wear masks. But I also have to realize that there are parents who feel just as strongly… that we should be masked.” She said she understood the urgency because school is starting on August 10. She said she didn’t see how it would be possible to have mask-mandatory and mask-optional classes. “I know it couldn’t possibly work at middle and high because you’re changing classes all day… there may be a SLIM possibility at elementary because some elementary schools do have fourth- and fifth-graders who change classes.” She said it was a huge responsibility to make this decision because “I would never, ever want one of our kids—please hear me—to get ill or have to be hospitalized… It’s hard for me to sit here and look at every one of you and say it’s going to be okay.” She said she didn’t know what her decision would be.
McNealy said children will need to wear masks on school buses because there’s a federal order governing that, and if that’s a problem for a child, they will need to find other ways to get to school. However, the federal order does allow for exemptions for people with disabilities.
Simon said district staff would prepare the reopening plan except for the information about masks; that decision will be made at the board meeting on August 3.