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Monday, September 20, 2021

ACPS no longer requires masks outdoors

The updated policy is experiencing positive and negative feedback

Alachua County Public Schools ended its outdoor facial covering requirement and temperature checks on April 23. 

Beginning this summer, masks will be optional indoors on ACPS campuses as well, ACPS Director of Communications Jackie Johnson said. The county will also no longer require temperature checks, but social distancing will still be enforced.

The decision came after consulting with the Scientific Medical Advisory Committee, a group of UF affiliated health professionals who have informed many of ACPS’s decisions on safety procedures in the past, Johnson said. 

Johnson emphasized that ditching masks is the county’s goal, but they will remain flexible. 

“If the circumstances on the ground change, then we will have to change that protocol as well, and we may have to do mandatory masks,” she said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines still encourage the use of face masks indoors for schools, according to its website

The policy change has also raised concerns for some parents. 

Jennifer Aponte’s daughter used to attend Glenn Springs Elementary but started going to school online at the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020. 

The 44-year-old Gainesville resident said her daughter has asthma and Alagille syndrome - a genetic condition that affects her heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and her blood’s ability to clot. 

Doctors told Aponte her child can only go back to school if those around her wear masks, or if she is vaccinated. Aponte’s daughter is too young to get vaccinated, and with ACPS lifting their mask mandate, she won’t be going to school any time soon. 

Aponte said she can’t even think about getting a job because she must stay home with her daughter. 

“I’ve seen my kid on a ventilator before,” she said. “It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s not something I’m willing to do.” 

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Aponte said she is not willing to find out what would happen if her daughter contracted COVID-19. 

“We’ve worked too hard and too long to keep her alive to just back out now and go, ‘OK, you can go to school and not wear a mask,’” she said. 

UF professor and chair of the epidemiology department, Stephen Kimmel, said forgoing masks at school is a great goal and based on COVID-19 transmission in Alachua County over the next six weeks, the county needs to be ready to change.

Kimmel said the spread of COVID-19 cases has been declining in Alachua County, and transmission in schools has been relatively low. He said the current seven-week average is 50 new cases a day, which is down from over 200 in January.  

As of April 30, 699, or 2.3%, of ACPS students out of more than 29,000 have had COVID-19, according to the ACPS COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard does not specify whether these cases were transmitted at school. Comparatively, 24,766 or 9.2% of Alachua County residents have had COVID-19

Dr. Melissa Mauldin, the student activities director at Gainesville High School, said students are respectful about wearing masks. She said it can be difficult to keep a mask on for an entire school day, but whenever she has had to remind students to wear their masks correctly, they have been polite and willing. 

“In this initial phase, I have very much appreciated having masks required inside our classrooms,” she said. “Our scientific knowledge continues to grow and that may not be necessary forever. So, I’m comfortable following research and making adjustments as the circumstances improve.” 

Mauldin said the county and GHS have been working hard to keep people safe by providing hand sanitizer and face masks, enacting new cleaning procedures and following contact tracing and social distancing.

Some UF faculty also voiced opposition to the change. 

Jaana Gold, an associate professor in the UF college of Dentistry and a consultant for the Florida Department of Health, helped write an open letter sent Friday to the county expressing opposition to the change. 

The letter argues lifting the ACPS mask mandate is inconsistent with federal guidelines and does not consider the safety of immunocompromised people. It asked the county to rescind the update and work toward a solution that the entire community is happy with. 

Gold, 49, said it is too early to know how things will be in June and whether it will be safe to send kids to school with no mask.

Contact Samuel Schaffer at sschaffer@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @samschaf_.

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