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East County Wednesday, Jun. 2, 2021 11 months ago

School District of Manatee County drops mask mandate

However, the School District of Manatee County might consider classes made up entirely of students who wish to wear masks.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Tyson Duerr, a junior at Braden River High School, didn’t get the year he hoped to experience because of the COVID-19 protocols put in place by the School District of Manatee County, including the mask mandate.

He was looking forward to being back on campus full time after ending his sophomore year at home with e-learning.

He was ready to serve as the vice president of the drama club and as the vice president of the Student Government Association.

“Everything was taken away from me based on decisions by other people,” Duerr said. 

Brittany Larkin, mother of Tyson Duerr, a junior at Braden River High School, and Chloe Scott, a student at Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch, all advocate for the make mandate to be removed.

Duerr went before the School Board of Manatee County May 25 during a public hearing on the mask mandate to express his desire to have the mandate removed.

“I’m not here to tell anyone how to live their lives, but I shouldn’t be told how to live mine,” Duerr said. “I prefer not to wear a mask, and I don’t feel guilty saying this out loud. However, I’m tired of being yelled at for not wearing mine or being called stupid, especially because if I do wear it, I still get sent home for two weeks because of someone in my classroom getting COVID.”

With the pandemic's effects easing, Duerr’s hope for the mask mandate to be removed came to fruition when the School Board of Manatee County unanimously voted May 29 to remove the mandate, effective immediately.

“The removal of the mandate means a lot because I will be able to choose to live how I want to and be one step closer to a normal life,” Duerr said. “It won’t make everything perfect, but it will be a bit better.”

Cynthia Saunders, the superintendent of the district, said in a news release that the removal of the mask mandate is a step toward returning to pre-COVID-19 times.

“It is my hope that the school board’s decision is an important milestone in our return to normalcy for our students and employees,” Saunders said in the release. “When the mask mandate was initiated in August, I firmly believe it was the right thing to do, and I think the mandate helped us complete this school year without missing a single day of school. To me, the decision represents the closing of one chapter, and the beginning of a new one.”  

Chloe Scott, a student at Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch, is ecstatic about the removal of the mask mandate because she didn’t like wearing masks. The masks made it so she couldn’t see her friends’ smiles or hug them. She said she had difficulty hearing her friends and teachers because of the masks. 

“It’s unfair to us,” Scott said.

Gena Case, the guidance clerk at Myakka City Elementary School, was elated to hear she wouldn’t have to wear a mask when she returns to school in August. 

“I cannot wait to see the kids’ faces again and their smiles,” Case said. “I’m so ready to get back to normal.”

With masks no longer being a requirement for students, school board member Charlie Kennedy, said the district needs to be wary of elementary students ages 11 and under who might not feel comfortable returning to school without a mask mandate in place.

“We are leaving a certain number of kids vulnerable,” Kennedy said. “Even if they want a vaccine, they have no access.”

Kennedy suggested the district implement an idea from a county resident who spoke in favor of the mask mandate during the school board’s public hearing on the matter May 25.

The suggestion was to have classes in each grade at the elementary level for students who wish to wear masks and classes for students who don’t want to wear masks.

“We have to respect everybody’s individual choice,” Kennedy said. “The district, I think, needs to go the extra mile to make sure that those that need to or want to wear a mask feel supported in that.” 

Gena Case, a guidance clerk at Myakka City Elementary School, follows the School District of Manatee County guidelines when not wearing a mask outside. She's excited she won't have to wear a mask next school year.

Saunders said the district can take a poll of parents over the summer to see how many families would be interested in having their student continue to wear masks next year and if so, possibly be put in a class for students with masks.

Saunders said the possibility of having classes separated by those with masks and those without is dependent on the number of students in each grade level on a school-by-school basis planning to wear a mask. 

“If you only have three [students], for instance, in a group of an age, we’re not going to be able to have a separate situation,” Saunders said. “If I did have enough that were interested that we could make a class as such, then absolutely, we certainly will do that. It will be based on the response per school per parents’ interest.”

Saunders said each school will work with parents to ensure they feel comfortable sending their child to school. 

“We have many ways we can accommodate students without it having to be a district-wide or school-wide situation,” Saunders said.

The school board will discuss other COVID-19 mitigation efforts that were put in place, such as social distancing and placing plexiglass between desks and tables, this summer.

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