The mask mandate in Alachua County Public Schools has been a focal point of debate for months, but Wednesday’s school board meeting signaled the mandate may soon be over.
The Alachua County School Board voted 3-2 on Wednesday to allow parents to opt their students out of masking from Nov. 12 to Dec. 17. The board also voted to make masking completely optional for students of all grade levels after winter break. The decision is consistent with State Department of Education and State Department of Health requirements.
This decision comes after the Nov. 2 meeting when the school board decided to accept mask exemption forms beginning Dec. 7. The Centers for Disease Control and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended children 5- to 11-years-old get the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine.
Elementary and middle school students were still expected to mask up until Dec. 7 unless they had a medical exemption.
School board member Rob Hyatt called for the special meeting amid retaliation from upset parents, and the school board compromised to accept opt-out forms sooner.
Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a pediatrician of infectious diseases at UF, said she expects children 5 to 11 years old to begin getting vaccinated in the next week. School clinics, drive-up clinics and pediatrician offices will be set up to provide the vaccinations.
“[The] vaccination really does remain the most important public health tool that we have to end this pandemic,” she said.
David Kaplan, an ACPS parent, said he wants the mask mandate to remain in effect long enough for children to get the vaccine and build up immunity, including his own third-grade daughter who attends Carolyn Beatrice Parker Elementary School.
Kaplan said his daughter received her first vaccine Friday and will receive her second dose Dec. 4, which means she will not be fully protected against the virus until Dec. 18.
“The motion on the floor to keep the mask mandate with parental opt-out is protecting her and allowing us to feel comfortable continuing to send her to school until she’s fully protected,” he said.
Teresa Steele, a mother of first- and fourth-graders at High Springs Community School, said no mask mandate should be enforced. She said members of the school board who have kept the mandate this long should be replaced.
“What kinds of example does this set for the kids, community and state?” she said.
Alachua County Education Association President Carmen Ward said she applauds the school board for continuing to make the safety of the student body a priority.
“This is a fluid situation,” she said. “We may have a spike after the Thanksgiving holiday, so it’s important that we continue to come back and reconsider where we’re at.”
Superintendent Carlee Simon said that while the opt-out forms do create increased paperwork for staff at Alachua County schools, the employees who will be completing the additional work are generally in favor of the opt-out protocol. She said teachers will be in charge of keeping track of which students are opted-out.
Mary Benedict, President of the Alachua County Council of PTAs, said mandating opt-out forms sends a different message to the community than simply making masks optional without exemption forms.
“When you end the opt-out, you’re sending a message that perhaps this is safe now and I don’t think that’s what the medical professionals told you,” she said. “[Continuing the mandate] would send the correct message to our parents: You can’t just drop the mask [mandate].”
Hyatt thanked his colleagues for coming to the extra meeting and taking the initiative to revise the constantly evolving mask mandate in a timely fashion.
“I absolutely believe that there is a unity in caring about what’s best for the kids, families and community,” he said.
The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is Tuesday at 6 p.m.
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Bryce Brown is a third-year journalism major and copy editor for The Alligator. He has previously worked as a metro general assignment reporter on the Metro desk and as staff writer for The Avenue. When he's not fretting over deadlines, you can find him drinking copious amounts of black iced coffee and listening to Lana Del Rey.