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Sarasota Tuesday, Apr. 20, 2021 4 months ago

Sarasota Schools considering optional face mask policy for 2021-22 school year

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Following directives from the state, district leaders will consider a policy that would not make face masks mandatory for the new school year.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Sarasota School Board members are considering letting the district’s face mask policy sunset June 30.

Board members revisited the policy, which requires all students and staff to wear a face covering while on campus or in district vehicles, after Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to Florida districts asking them to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year. 

Students have been wearing masks since August, but health officials are now saying numbers of COVID-19 cases may be low enough to consider an optional policy. 

Michael Drennon, an epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, said the current positivity rate is 6.8%, an increase from February’s 3.5% rate. However, he said rates have consistently remained lower than this time last year. 

Although he said confidentiality rules prevented him from disclosing the number of staff or students who have received COVID-19 vaccinations, district Chief Operations Officer Jody Dumas said the district held three clinics for teachers that were “well received.” 

Speaking from information gathered from local physicians, Dumas said that as long as the county's positivity rate continues on a downward trend, a voluntary mask policy is logical. 

However, Dumas said the policy would need to be revisited closer to the start of the school year to ensure trends are holding.

“Our medical professionals know better how to treat these cases and identify it earlier on,” Board member Bridget Ziegler said. “I would very much like to see us move toward an optional face mask circumstance.” 

Since school started Aug. 31, there have been 373 positive staff cases and 1,480 student cases in the district’s 35,800 public school students, a 4.1% positivity rate.  Because the district is still recording positive cases, some board members were wary of letting the policy expire. 

“I can tell you that I am not ready to change our mask policy,” Board member Jane Goodwin said. “I think it’s too far out from the beginning of the next school year, and we’ll have to wait and see.” 

She also noted that vaccines are not yet available for most students, just to those who are ages 16 and older. Vaccine testing for ages 12-16 is underway, but local physicians are not yet sure when the public can expect those vaccines. 

Board members agreed they’d like to hear from teachers and other stakeholders before deciding. 

Although teachers remain divided on if they want face masks or not, Superintendent Brennan Asplen said none of them want to continue with concurrent learning in the new school year. 

Over the summer, the district will have to come up with plans for how best to continue education in the event of a quarantine, but Asplen said administrators have “every intention” of starting the 2021-22 school year as normal. 

Aside from face masks, board members considered allowing teachers to remove the plastic shields used to divide desks in each classroom. They said they’d heard from many students who say it is hard to see the board and focus during class, particularly now that many have seen heavy use. 

Although district leaders say they could be removed, it would need to be an all-or-nothing scenario. Board members preferred a case-by-case scenario, so they also will poll teachers about shields before moving forward. 

Board members will meet closer to the start of the new school year to discuss final decisions on a mask policy, desk shields and options for quarantine learning. 

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