All Alachua County Public Schools employees, visitors, vendors and volunteers are now required to wear masks inside all schools and district facilities, regardless of vaccination status. All students will also be required to wear masks when they return to school Aug. 10.
The first mandate for employees began Tuesday and will continue until Sept. 17 when the county will review COVID-19 case numbers and vaccination rates before deciding whether to extend the requirement, according to a letter written by ACPS superintendent Carlee Simon.
The student mask mandate was voted on during a school board meeting Tuesday evening and will span the first two weeks of the school year, but it will be reevaluated during the next board meeting on Aug. 17.
The decisions were made in response to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases not only in Alachua County but across Florida.
Since the week of June 11, the number of new positive cases in the county each week remained between 60 and 76, and the positivity rate stayed at about 2%.
That changed when the first week of July saw an increase with about 90 new cases, and the third week’s new case numbers jumped to almost 400. Last week, the county hit more than 1,000 positive cases with a positivity rate of 14.6%, according to the Alachua County COVID-19 dashboard.
This trend follows the rise in cases across the state. Florida saw more than 21,000 positive cases on Saturday, which is the highest one-day total for the state since the start of the pandemic.
“Our ACPS family has not been spared,” Simon’s letter read. “We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of cases among employees over the past two weeks. Some of them have been hospitalized, and I’m very sorry to report that one of our employees died of COVID-related complications this past weekend. None of us wants to lose any more friends or co-workers to COVID.”
The letter also urged unvaccianted employees to take advantage of the Alachua County Health Department walk-up vaccine clinics, and Simon wrote the school board is working on providing $100 to any employee who is currently vaccinated or who gets vaccinated before Sept. 17.
Unvaccinated employees who contract COVID-19 or who are in close contact with a positive case will not receive paid leave; now, the off-time will instead come from their own leave time. However, if a fully vaccinated ACPS employee contracts COVID-19 or is in contact with a positive case, they will receive paid leave.
ACPS’ decisions come after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on July 31 directing the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Education to ensure the safety protocols implemented to control the spread of COVID-19 in schools are not violating Floridians’ constitutional freedoms or parents’ right under Florida law to make health care decisions for their children.
The order also calls for protocols that will protect children with disabilities or health conditions, and the Florida Commissioner of Education is allowed to seek any legal means necessary to ensure adherence to this order, including the withholding of state funds from school boards deemed noncompliant.
Alachua County is one of only a few school districts in Florida that have mandated masks for the start of the school year. Broward County issued a mask mandate for public schools last week, and Miami-Dade County is requiring facial coverings on buses and enforcing other safety measures such as heightened sanitization practices and social distancing in traditionally crowded spaces like the cafeteria.
Some parents of ACPS students do not agree with DeSantis’ decision to limit the power of school boards to enact measures like mask mandates, however.
Mike Ryan Simonovich, whose son is entering sixth grade at Lincoln Middle School this fall, said the order is an illegal, empty threat, and he hopes the school board will bring forth a lawsuit against the state of Florida.
“I wish they would demonstrate the character of standing up to Tallahassee,” he said. “The governor should allow local elected leaders to make decisions for their own constituents.”
Ryan Simonovich’s son completed the past school year through ACPS’ Digital Academy, which is not being funded this year. While he wants his son to go back to in-person learning so he can socialize with his peers and teachers, he said he is terrified because of his son’s history of asthma.
“I don’t want him to die intubated in a pediatric ICU,” he said. “Masking, especially for children who cannot be vaccinated, is a critical piece of public health.”
At a school board meeting on Tuesday evening, the school board voted to also require masks for students for the first two weeks of school.
The decision came after a heated debate among public commenters and the school board members themselves. Most commenters were in favor of the mask requirement for employees and were begging the board to require them for students, too, but some wanted neither.
One public commenter said they believe the school board does not have the authority to implement these changes because they are in violation of the governor’s order.
“You guys are continuing to go by force,” the commenter said. “Let me remind you, coercion is not consent.”
Fears about the state stripping ACPS of critical funds because of the masking decision were presented, but school board member Leanetta McNealy said she would rather the state come after ACPS’ money than have to see students, staff and family members sent to funeral homes.
“We cannot think in terms of finance right now,” she said. “If we lose our students because we’re not listening to the scientists who are sitting in here with us, we’re in deep trouble.”
Phong Huynh contributed to this report.
Contact Abigail Hasebroock at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @abbeyhasebroock.
Abigail is a second-year journalism major covering university general assignment news for The Alligator. When she’s not catching up on school or reporting, she’s spending time outside, reading or reorganizing her Spotify playlists - usually all at the same time.