Masks remain optional for public schools

Eric Cummings speaks during a meeting of the Marion County Public School Board in March. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Public school students and employees will start the school year on Aug. 10 with the option of wearing masks despite the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Marion County.

The Marion County School Board did not officially vote on the decision during Thursday’s work session but offered guidance to the administration. The board has not voted on some decisions in recent months, opting to offer guidance instead.

Of the three board members attending the work session, Kelly King and Allison Campbell agreed that masks should remain optional. Eric Cummings argued the county should require parents to opt-out of wearing masks.

Recently after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order barring school boards from mandating students wear masks, seeming tying school districts’ hands.

At least four districts, however, are pushing back on the executive order moving ahead with mask mandates anyway.

The Alachua County School Board voted Tuesday to require students to wear masks during the first two weeks of school. Under the policy, only students with a “documented medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask” could request exemptions.

Under the executive order, districts that don’t comply will have state funds withheld.

But Cummings’ suggestion of having parents opt out of masks was not seen as practical by King or Campbell.

“It puts all the responsibility on the teachers to be mask police,” Campbell said. “They are going to have to track who has signed it or who hasn’t.”

King agreed the opt-in strategy would take time away from classwork.

School Board member Allison Campbell listens during a Marion County School Board meeting in May. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
“We made some decision a couple of weeks ago based on numbers. Things have changed. Things have really, really changed,” Cummings said.

Through Wednesday, Marion County has reported 1,880 cases of COVID-19 in the last seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hospitalizations during the same time frame are up to 228, a record, the CDC reports.

Cummings stressed he was not comfortable with the optional mask policy.

“We pride ourselves on following the CDC guidelines. If we’re going to follow CDC recommendations, we need to follow them to the hilt,” he said.

In early July, the CDC recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Campbell, however, pointed out that masks have been optional all during summer school, and there were no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks. Summer school included about 7,000 students. Nearly 40,000 students attend during the regular school year.

Through consensus, the board also decided they would not allow visitors at elementary school or plan field trips for at least a month, depending on how the COVID-19 numbers are trending.

Visitors will be allowed at middle schools and high schools since most students are eligible for vaccinations, according to a school district release.

Children 12 and older can receive the Pfizer vaccine.

Each school will decide if visitors on campus will be required to wear masks.

That decision goes with the board’s agreed-upon policy to allow individual schools more autonomy in making decisions.

School leaders will maintain social distancing and sanitation protocols similar to those from last year. District leaders will meet twice each week with the Florida Department of Health in Marion County to review the COVID-19 status. Each school will also have a designated COVID-19 liaison that will work with the DOH to coordinate quarantines and contact tracing when cases arise in school.

The district will release weekly reports on cases and quarantines at schools every Monday.

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