School board goes to opt-out mandatory mask policy

Dr. Diane Gullett, the Superintendent of Marion County Public Schools, right, listens during a meeting of the Marion County Public School Board in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

Home » Education
Posted August 16, 2021 | Matthew Cretul,

Diane Gullett, Marion County Public Schools superintendent, listens during a meeting of the Marion County School Board in March. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

In the face of hundreds of students quarantined due to COVID-19 after the first four days of classes, the Marion County School Board on Monday agreed to implement a temporary policy mandating masks, but with a parental opt-out provision.

The opt-out would not require a medical or religious exemption. The move changes the policy that kept masks strictly optional when schools opened on Aug. 10. The resolution takes effect immediately, but enforcement will begin on Thursday. However, parents will be able to start opting out their children out as early as Tuesday.

Lindsey Ardmore attended the meeting and was the first to speak during the public comments.  Ardmore has previously spoken out against mask mandates during past meetings, and she reiterated her stance at Monday’s meeting advocating for parental choice, or at the very least an opt-out policy for parents who do not want their children to wear masks.

“My daughter is a gifted kindergartner at MSA (Madison Street Academy).  She is brilliant, but she cannot handle a mask. She has sensory integration issues. She can’t focus. She’s reading at a second-grade level, but she can’t focus if she’s got a mask on her face. It’s just not fair to her… or the other kids that have other issues like her that don’t necessarily look like they have that,” Ardmore said.

Samantha Shipwash also spoke against mask mandates during the meeting and said no children wear masks in her third-grader’s class. She also said she would probably lose her mind if she had to home-school, and she believed that if masks became mandatory, “a lot of people are going to start pulling their kids out of public school.”

Not all of those who spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting were against mask policies, however.  Dr. David Kuhn supported a masking plan with the ability for parents to opt their children out should they choose to.

“I’m sick of COVID. I know we’re all sick of COVID,” he said. “But here’s what I know, is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, we all know it…here’s what else I know, delta is spreading in our schools, and that spread is going to get worse.”

He went on to equate the delta variant and its transmission rate to that of measles and noted the variant is more infectious than smallpox.

Kuhn also offered the backing of the medical community in Ocala.

“The doctors of Ocala will be here to support the school board to buy masks for every student that needs one,” he said.

Rose Jenkins spoke in support of mask policies as well. Jenkins has been a nurse in Ocala for the past 11 years and has a disabled daughter in high school who was homeschooled all last year. She said her daughter is suffering from anxiety already this year because other students around her are not wearing masks.

“I work in it. If your loved one has COVID right now, you can’t be there to hold their hand as they take their last breath. I’m dealing with it. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting,” she said.

“I’m with my friend right now as her husband, who was a bus driver here in the Marion County School System, has succumbed to COVID. As a nurse, as a parent, I’m just asking [for] a temporary [policy] until we can get this under control because we are out of control.”

The board voted 3-1 to pass the resolution during the seven-and-a-half-hour emergency meeting.  Board Chairwoman Nancy Thrower and Board Members Eric Cummings and Kelly King voted in favor. Board member Allison Cambell voted against the move. The mask mandate would not allow employees to opt out, except for religious or medical reasons. The resolution would last for up to 90 days unless the board extends the policy.

During the meeting, the board hammered out details including expectations of students riding buses, mask policies at sporting events and health department metrics that will guide the decision to end the policy.

The board received guidance from Florida Department of Health – Marion County Administrator Mark Lander on suggested benchmarks that would help determine when it would be appropriate to conclude the masking policy. Currently, Marion County is classified as having a high level of community transmission by the CDC, and Lander suggested that the county would need to drop to the next category down, which is classified as substantial, for two weeks.

The board also extended the opt-out policy to students riding busses and participating in extended day programs as well. If a parent has chosen to opt their child out of wearing a mask, the child will still be able to ride their assigned bus or take part in extended day activities.

Masks will be available for all indoor sports within the county when they get underway next week, but crowd sizes will not be limited, and masks will not be required if social distancing is possible.

On Monday, the school system reported 139 positive COVID-19 cases from Aug. 10 to 13. The cases included 93 students and 46 employees. The cases prompted 531 quarantines – 456 students and 75 employees.

The final resolution changing the facemask policy will comply with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent executive order banning mask mandates for students. The wide opt-out provision would keep it from running afoul of the order.

While some on the board pointed out that masks are not a “magic bullet” against the virus, the coverings, along with other mitigation practices, like frequent cleaning and social distancing could help reduce the chances of spread. It was pointed out, however, that even if students and staff are wearing masks, they are still subject to the same quarantine protocols.

If someone has spent 15 minutes within six feet of a person who tests positive, they must quarantine at home.

Those in quarantine can return after a negative PCR test after the fifth day of exposure or wait eight days after the contact without showing symptoms.

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