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East County Wednesday, May 5, 2021 7 months ago

School District of Manatee County considers letting masks down

School Board of Manatee County considers a voluntary mask policy for summer school and the 2021-22 school year.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

GreyHawk Landing’s Paula Lohnes’ son came home from after the first day of school, and he was upset because he felt isolated from wearing a mask all day.

The School District of Manatee County has required students and staff to wear masks while on school grounds as a mitigation effort against COVID-19. 

Lohnes was already reluctant about sending her son back to school in person because of the mask policy.

“We don’t believe in masks; we don’t wear them,” Lohnes said.

Two days later, Lohnes pulled her son from school and had him at home doing e-learning full time.

Now, Lohnes is hoping the School Board of Manatee County will approve a change to the mask policy that would allow her son to start his freshman year of high school as normal.

“I want him to have a normal high school experience,” Lohnes said. “There’s no reason for him not to.”

The school board is considering making masks voluntary after Richard Corcoran, the Florida education commissioner, issued a letter to school districts to amend mask policies for next year to make masks optional.

Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees said April 29 that fully vaccinated Floridians don’t need to wear a mask in public or avoid large gatherings.

The school district gave a proposal to the school board during a workshop April 30 that, if approved, would change the mask policy to become voluntary for students, employees and visitors.

First grader Jordan McCarte listens intently as her reading buddy, Gia Giangrante, who is a fifth grader, reads "The Invisible Boy." Courtesy photo.

Cynthia Saunders, the district’s superintendent, could impose a mask requirement if the 14-day positivity rate of a communicable disease, such as COVID-19, reaches 10% or higher in Manatee County or if there is a high concentration in a specific school or group setting, such as athletics and club activities, according to the proposal.

If Saunders requires students and employees to wear masks, the masks must be worn at all times for at least 10 consecutive calendar days or more if the positivity rate remains above 10%, according to the proposal.

Board member Charlie Kennedy agreed with the proposal with a few changes. He suggested the district uses a seven-day positivity rate instead of 14 days.

“That enables the superintendent to act more quickly if there is a rapid outbreak of some sort,” Kennedy said. “I think if you can have a middle ground on a mask policy or how to handle the pandemic in Manatee County, I feel like it’s here and especially now that we have data and metrics from [the department of health].”

Another suggestion Kennedy made was to lower the threshold for requiring masks from a 10% positivity rate to an 8% positivity rate, which the Florida Department of Health in Manatee County considers to be a substantial risk of transmission.

Board members Mary Foreman, Gina Messenger and James Golden agreed with the changes Kennedy suggested.

Board member Scott Hopes was not present for the discussion. 

Madelyn Hall and Patrick Danielcak, first graders at B.D. Gullett Elementary School use laptops to learn how to access digital books from the public library. Courtesy photo.

“As it stands right now, I think this is a good way to go,” Messenger said. “I think it does create a reasonable threshold. It gives the superintendent the ability if she needs it to [require masks].”

The proposal would be implemented starting June 1, but Messenger, Foreman and Kennedy all wanted to move the implementation date to June 7 so the policy would be in place during graduation, which is from June 1-5 at LECOM Park and Manatee High School. The policy would then be in place as summer school starts June 7.

Foreman and Kennedy wanted to add language in the policy that would require masks to be worn on buses because numerous students would be in close contact on a bus at a time.

Golden wanted to add language that would require the board to review the policy every 90 days as the board did with the mask policy currently in place.

The school board will hold a public hearing on the mask policy and is expected to vote on a final draft of the policy at its May 25 board meeting.

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