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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Alachua County Public Schools to accept mask exemption forms for high schoolers

High school parents can submit the forms starting Oct. 19

In the ongoing masking battle between the Florida Department of Education, the Alachua County School Board and public school parents, the school board signaled the beginning of the end. 

Despite some parents’ opposition to the county’s public school mask mandate until Oct. 19, the Alachua County School Board decided on Oct. 5 to extend it for at least another four weeks.

But now, parents can exempt their high school students from masking requirements beginning Oct. 19 by submitting opt-out forms to exempt their children from wearing masks. 

However, no mask opt-out forms will be accepted for kindergarten through eighth grade students. Only medical exemptions in rare cases where students have a developmental or physical disability will be accepted as a reason to unmask at school.

Although the School Board considered allowing exemptions for students at least 12 years old  instead of just high school students, it ultimately decided it would be too complicated to navigate in middle schools.

Leanetta McNealy, School Board chair, said masking is the reason behind the declining COVID-19 cases in the Alachua County school system.

Despite being pro-mask, she said the board has to juggle the interests of two types of parents: those who believe parents have the right to decide if their child wears a mask and those who believe everyone should wear a mask to ensure their child is protected. 

This decision comes after Jeff Childers, the attorney who successfully stalled Gainesville’s city employee vaccine mandate, filed a lawsuit against the county’s mask mandate. Childers will represent 22 petitioners from Alachua and Duval counties. The school district had until Oct. 8 to respond to the lawsuit. It’s unclear as of Oct. 10 whether the county has responded.

Pro-masking and anti-masking parents alike came to the Alachua County School District building in downtown Gainesville to voice their opinion on the mandate at the school board meeting on Oct. 5.

Sarah Rockwell, a mother of two homeschooled children, said she attended the rally to advocate for the continued masking in the school district, especially while children under 12 years old are still unable to get vaccinated 

Her children have been enrolled in Florida Virtual School at home because her daughter’s health is at-risk should she contract COVID-19. 

“That's why I'm wearing an N-95 mask outside in the Florida heat,” she said. “My daughter has sacrificed almost all of her social interactions and my son, too, for 18 months. That's an actual sacrifice. Having to wear a mask is a mild inconvenience.”

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Rockwell said under Florida’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, masks do not qualify as medical devices or treatments. The bill established a parent’s right to direct his or her child’s upbringing, education and health.

“Requiring a child to wear a cloth face covering is just like requiring them to wear close-toed shoes,” Rockwell said. “It might not be the most comfortable thing, but we do it because it keeps everyone safe just like wearing close-toed shoes keeps us from having trip-and-fall accidents and foot injuries.”

She said Childers’ lawsuit is laughable, and she questions his qualifications to be influencing medical policy in the school district.

Other parents believe it’s time to repeal masking requirements.

Teresa Steele, a mother of a first -grade student and a fourth -grade student at High Springs Community School, said she supports Childers’ lawsuit. 

“I hope he is successful in doing that because the School Board, like I said, is just dragging their feet, and I think they're politically motivated at this point,” she said. 

Steele said parents should be able to make decisions about their own children’s health. She agrees with the state Department of Education for withholding funding.

“The whole school board needs to be fired for being insubordinate,” she said. 

Steele said it’s unfair that only high school students can opt-out of the mask mandate and not all students. If Steele’s family had the option, they would not wear masks.  

David Kaplan, who has a third -grade daughter at Carolyn Beatrice Parker Elementary School, said he viewed the rally as an opportunity to express support for the safety measures the school board has taken for students, such as the mask mandate and new air filtration. 

“To move forward on improving our schools, we need all parents involved in putting their voice in supporting the initiatives that they think are going to help their kids,” Kaplan said. “Many hands make light work, and teachers and administrators can’t do it on their own.”  

Contact Bryce at bbrown@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @brycebrownnn. 

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