Based on the rising COVID-19 numbers and advice from medical experts, Orange County Public Schools is going back to a mask mandate for all adults in school buildings or on school buses starting Tuesday, the first full day back from the winter holiday.
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins informed employees late Monday afternoon of the new policy.
The mask mandate does not apply to students, because the newly-approved House Bill 1, passed in November and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, forbids public schools from requiring students to wear masks.
Jenkins’ new policy mandating masks applies to adult faculty, staff, volunteers and visitors to public schools in Orange County.
The latest information posted on the district’s website shows 29 faculty and staff members and 29 students currently positive for COVID-19, as of Sunday. However, those numbers may have risen significantly Monday.
Orange County Public Schools, like several other urban and suburban school districts in Florida, began the 2021-22 school year with a mandate that everyone in school buildings and on buses wear masks, largely in defiance of DeSantis’ anti-mandate policies. On Nov. 1, based on the rapidly falling COVID-19 infection numbers in Orange County, the schools rolled back student mandates to allow parental opt-outs. On Nov. 18, as a result of the signing of HB 1, the student mandate was dropped altogether.
Over the past weekend, as teachers and other employees prepared to return to work Monday for an in-service day without students, the district advised all employees that they were encouraged but not mandated to wear masks back on campus.
That changed quickly.
“This weekend, employees received a message that encouraged them to wear face masks due to the highly contagious omicron variant,” Jenkins advised OCPS employees Monday afternoon. “At the time, county data indicated a fairly low percentage of positive COVID-19 cases for our employees and students. Today, we observed a severe increase in sick leave call-outs from school-based staff.
“After further consultation with medical experts and out of an abundance of caution for employees and students, I have determined that face masks will be mandatory for all adults in OCPS buildings and vehicles while in the presence of others during the school day. Such efforts are an attempt to preserve our workforce and keep schools open, and will be in effect beginning tomorrow through the end of January. We are informed that cases should decline over the next few weeks, so we will continue to monitor and update staff before January 31st,” she continued in her advisory.
Last week, the state of Florida smashed its records for new COVID-19 infections, recording 302,179 new confirmed cases for the week ending last Thursday. That was up from 124,865 cases confirmed the prior week, and up from 28,841 recorded during the week ending Dec. 17, indicating the swift spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.