School mask policy discussed, unchanged

Crossing guard Will Lopez directs traffic on the first day of school at Osceola Middle School and Eighth Street Elementary in Ocala on Tuesday. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
Masks, COVID-19 protocols and mitigation efforts were again the hot topics during Thursday’s Marion County School Board work session.

The meeting is the second of the week, which also included the start of the new school year on Tuesday. A school year featuring an optional mask policy for students and employees even as COVID-19 cases surge.

Board Member Eric Cummings again reiterated his stance on masking and enhanced safety procedures and implored the board to take additional actions.

“To me, this is crazy that we’re still talking. How we’re talking when things have not changed. When things are getting worse by the day. We’re gambling with people’s lives right now…with our students’ lives, with our staffs’ lives,” he said.

He mentioned the death of several school employees recently in his plea for a mask mandate.

“We got two calls yesterday, our own people. Dead. Gone. How many more calls is it going to take?” Cummings asked.

The circumstances surrounding the deaths of the employees were not immediately clear.

But the other board members were conflicted given the recent executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that barred school districts from mandating masks for students. The governor and the Department of Education promised to hold back state funds if districts did not adhere to the order.

Eric Cummings speaks during a Marion County Public School Board meeting in March. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
“We know what the executive order is. We know what the law is,” said board Vice Chairwoman Kelly King, adding that she hoped the government didn’t need to mandate a mask policy for people to wear one.

Board Chairwoman Nancy Thrower said the current surge may force their hand.

“If we don’t turn this tide very soon, we’re gonna be looking at choices none of us want to have to make. We all lived through no face-to-face school way too soon, in the past, way too recently,” she said.

In 2020, schools across the state were closed in April after a pandemic was declared.

Cummings asked about mandating masks for staff members temporarily and pleaded for the board to make the “hard decisions.”

“It’s critical to relay to our community the reality of what we’re facing,” Thrower said. “We are looking at a devastating cost to this district and this community if we don’t get ahold of this… I’m happy to have another conversation about masks. I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

Still, Thrower, King and Board Member Allison Campbell did not support changing the current policy.

Nancy Thrower, the chair of the Marion County School Board, speaks during a May meeting. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
The board also discussed state protocols for students testing positive for the virus or those coming in direct contact with someone testing positive.

Students who test positive for COVID-19 will have to follow the Florida Department of Health guidelines.

Those who are in direct contact with someone testing positive for COVID-19 will be sent home. They can return after a negative PCR test after the fifth day of exposure or wait for eight days after the contact without showing symptoms.

Students who miss school because of the COVID-19 protocols will not be counted as absent if they are completing their assigned coursework remotely.

Both school administrators and board members stressed the importance of students staying home if they feel even slightly sick.

The county will continue to track the number of positive cases and release weekly reports on Mondays, with the first report coming on Aug. 16.

Students will continue to engage in enhanced spacing whenever possible and are using hand sanitizer upon entering and exiting rooms.

Other mitigation efforts include lunch periods being held both indoors and outdoors, staggered dismissal times for schools and middle school students not utilizing locker rooms during the school day.

Superintendent of Schools Diane Gullett noted there were 5,000 more students attending classes this year than last. The increase in students is causing some schools to struggle with social distancing in general.

“It’s not perfect, and we can’t promise the social distancing,” Gullett said.

But she said school and staff members are working to ensure that the mitigation efforts can be met.

 

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