All students and employees will have the option to opt out of the School District of Manatee County's mask mandate.
The mask debate continued with the School Board of Manatee County after the School District of Manatee reported 179 positive COVID-19 cases within the first week of school.
The board voted 3-2 Aug. 16 to implement a mask mandate through Aug. 25 with an opt out option for all students and district employees. Board members Gina Messenger and Chad Choate, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Ron DeSantis Aug. 6, were the dissenting votes.
The prevailing vote came after at least five failed motions to amend the original agenda item, which was to implement a mask mandate with an opt out provision for all students with no opt out provision for all employees and adults on campus through Aug. 25.
The mask mandate follows the orders from Florida’s health and education departments stating parents should have a choice to opt out of mask use for their children.
The School Board of Manatee County voted in May to make masks optional. Even after a special meeting regarding masks Aug. 9, which was the day before school started, the optional mask policy remained in place rather than implementing a mask mandate with an opt out option.
Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the district, said the district wants to ensure parents have ease of communicating their decisions regarding masks to schools, so she said parents will have multiple ways of voicing their opinion.
Saunders said parents also can change their minds at any point.
Board member Charlie Kennedy hopes the mask mandate will encourage more people to wear masks while at school.
“What we saw last week is the counties that do have the opt out provision are seeing much higher rates of mask wearing, so that’s all that I’m after,” Kennedy said. “I don’t want to mandate that anyone has to do anything. I want to let parents decide for their kids what they want to do, but apparently there is a great group of people in the middle that will do what the school board and district guide them to do. They will listen to our guidance, and the parents that want to opt out, they still have an option to opt out.”
Board member Mary Foreman demonstrated concern for the number of cases in the first week of school.
“This is not political,” Foreman said. “This is not a question about, in my mind, your rights versus the health of a student or child. It’s not a conservative versus a liberal or a fellow Republican versus Democrat. This is humanity, and I am disappointed in anyone that makes this a liberty issue. I can’t respect that, I’m sorry. We have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, well life comes first. In my opinion, the health of a child supersedes.”
Messenger said she doesn’t see the difference between an optional mask policy and a mask mandate with an opt out option.
“We’re not changing anything, we really can’t change it,” Messenger said. “I understand there are people that are concerned. The best way to make those changes is to join the legal fight that already exists. Contact your legislators and tell them how you feel. They can change the law. We cannot. Contact the department of health. They can change their emergency rule. We cannot. Contact the Florida Department of Education. They can change how they proceed. We cannot.”
A survey was sent to families with elementary students to gauge families’ mask preference and interest in whether families prefer their student be in a classroom with students who are all wearing masks, their student be in a classroom where no one is wearing a mask or no preference.
The survey will end Aug. 22 to give district leaders time to gather the results and analyze them in time for the school board’s next meeting Aug. 24.
“I think the board members want to hear from more parents,” Saunders said. “They hear from a few in the board meetings, but that certainly doesn’t represent 18,000. I think they want to get a better pulse of what all the parents think about this issue.”
Positive COVID-19 cases in East County schools
The School District of Manatee County reported 179 positive COVID-19 cases in the first week of school, which started Aug. 10. Here are the number of cases in East County schools:
School Confirmed cases Employees positive Students positive
William H. Bashaw Elementary 2 - 2
Braden River Elementary 2 - 2
B. D. Gullett Elementary 4 1 3
Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary 3 - 3
Myakka City Elementary 2 - 2
Tara Elementary 2 - 2
Gene Witt Elementary 5 - 5
Braden River Middle 1 1 -
Carlos E. Haile Middle 2 - 2
Dr. Mona Jain Middle 5 - 5
R. Dan Nolan Middle 7 3 4
Braden River High 9 3 6
Lakewood Ranch High 1 1 -
Total for East County 45 9 36
Total for School District of Manatee County 179 50 129
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