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Sarasota Tuesday, May 18, 2021 6 months ago

School mask policy could shift to optional July 1

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Superintendent aims to hold off on changes until school year ends.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Once again, school board members discussed the possibility of masks in the upcoming school year, though they have yet to firm up a decision. 

Board members at their next meeting will review a policy that could make masks optional by July 1. Mandatory mask rules will likely remain as is through the end of the school year.

Board members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose would like an optional requirement as soon as possible, even if that means the change takes effect before the end of the year. Friday, June 11 is the final day of classes. 

“The win-win for me is giving families the option of whether they send their child to school with a mask or without,” Rose said. 

However, the other three board members favored of leaving the existing policy, which requires anyone on district campuses or vehicles to wear a mask, in place until the end of the school year. 

Superintendent Brennan Asplen agreed. He feared a change in the middle of state testing and end-of-the-year celebrations would be disruptive. He said he polled principals who largely felt the same as him. 

“We need to be consistent and keep things the way that they are for the rest of the school year, so we don’t create a chaotic situation, or even a situation that’s just a disruption,” he said. “ … to go and make changes at this point in time with everything going on at school, I think would be a mistake from an educational standpoint.” 

Board member Tom Edwards was in favor of keeping the current policy as is. He said he wouldn’t want to ask principals or students to make another drastic change in a year that has been difficult. 

“They have bent themselves over backwards, and I couldn’t possibly for a minute ask them to make another change,” Edwards said.  

CDC guidelines state fully vaccinated individuals can resume normal activities without wearing a mask, indoors or out. Michael Drennon, an epidemiologist with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, told board members about 820 students have received a COVID-19 vaccination through the county’s clinic at Sarasota Square Mall. 

Children younger than 12, who are not yet cleared for the vaccine, would remain vulnerable without masks.  Because of this, the CDC issued a statement that said the new guidelines do not apply to schools and district administrators should keep their current guidelines in place. 

Additionally, because the board’s current mask policy is an emergency policy, board attorney Patrick Duggan said the board must give legal notice and call a special meeting to make any changes to the policy. 

Typically, policy changes take about a month to enact and with three weeks left in the school year, most board members agreed it was best to let the current policy sunset on June 30.

“As chair, I would find it very difficult to call an emergency meeting,” school board member Shirley Brown said. “Just judging from what we had from input before is that it would be more of a risk if we took the masks off those kids now.” 

Board member Jane Goodwin said that although she is fully vaccinated, she will continue to wear her mask in solidarity as long as students do.  

 Ziegler asked Asplen to draft a policy allowing for optional mask use on July 1. The motion carried with a 3-2 vote, with Ziegler, Rose and board member Tom Edwards voting in favor. 

The board members will revisit the policy during their next meeting on June 1. 

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