Manatee County students will start the school year without a mask mandate — a policy that could change later this week.
The Manatee County School Board met Monday to discuss the district’s mask policy, with classes resuming for the fall semester Tuesday. But, the Board adjourned before voting on a mask policy, leaving face coverings optional for students.
The Board is set to meet again on Wednesday.
However, even if the Board does decide to mandate masks, it would be required to provide parents an “opt-out” option, meaning not much would change from the mask-optional policy in place now.
School Board members acknowledged that in their meeting Monday when responding to the wave of public comments from parents, split between those pleading for a mask mandate and those insisting it was unnecessary.
“I have been a non-masker since day one. My kids wore a mask to school last year. However, I have hosted five parties at my home since last spring, of over 50 people per party, not one instance of COVID,” said Nicole Lynch during public comment.
“I’ve also just had a slumber party at my house — I had several little fourth-graders coming over for a birthday party. We did have a little girl test positive several days later, not one person got COVID. We had no masks, not one at my party got COVID … So, the kids are not spreading COVID,” she continued.
The board is limited in its ability to require masks, since Surgeon General Scott Rivkees signed a rule on Friday requiring schools to let parents or guardians “opt-out the student from wearing a face-covering or mask,” along with guidelines for COVID-19 symptoms, positives and exposures.
“I looked at the Florida Department of Health’s website, and there’s a section ‘How to prevent and prepare for COVID-19,’ and ‘How to protect myself,” said District 3 Board member Mary Foreman. “Here’s how — practice social distancing, wear a cloth face covering in public — so, you know, its not like they’re saying that face masks suddenly don’t matter.”
The State Board of Education also released a proposed emergency rule after Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered a prohibition on mask mandates in schools last week. DeSantis is facing pushback from parents of children with disabilities, who are suing over the required opt-out option.
“The people that are doing this from Tallahassee are playing politics with a health issue,” said District 5 School Board member James Golden. “This is a political effort to deal with a serious health crisis … Our Governor issued this emergency order not based on any science, but based on what he’s hoping his political base will accept and embrace.”
That rule will allow public school students facing mask mandates to be given school vouchers to transfer schools, and students could receive protection from “harassment” based on their decision whether to wear masks.
The rule includes a definition for “COVID-19 harassment” as targeted conduct against students stemming from a school district’s COVID-19 protocols. The list of prohibited protocols includes mask requirements, separating or isolating students, or providing COVID-19 testing requirements.
According to the Board of Education, such protocols “pose a health or educational danger” to students and lead to learning loss.