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Amid protests, school board extends face mask requirement

The policy will sunset June 30 unless the board votes to end it earlier.

  • By
  • | 4:00 p.m. October 21, 2020
Christine Gregory and Michael Riccio wear white as a sign of peace. Harry Sayer
Christine Gregory and Michael Riccio wear white as a sign of peace. Harry Sayer
  • Sarasota
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It was another busy day at the Sarasota County School Board chambers Tuesday as those in favor of and in opposition to the district’s face mask policy gathered to express their views.

The emergency policy, which requires everyone on a district campus to wear a face mask with a few exceptions for medical purposes, was up for review as it neared its 90-day expiration date following initial adoption in August.

Despite protests against the policy and a pending lawsuit, the board voted 3-2 to approve an extension of the policy, which will run through June 30 or until board members vote otherwise. Board members Bridget Ziegler and Eric Robinson voted against the policy.

“Parents and teachers are wanting a sense of certainty,” board member Shirley Brown said. “They’re wanting to know that we are going to support them and their health and their safety and their security, and the proven, effective way to do that is to continue the mask policy.”

Although all board members said masks are an effective tool in limiting the spread of COVID-19, those who voted against the policy feared some details, such as special circumstances for exemptions and metrics for when the policy could end, were not completely thought out.

“I think there are improvements that need to be done to this policy,” Robinson said. “There are things in this policy, like not having phase-out plans, that could come back to haunt us.”

The scene outside the meeting was just as divided. Parents, teachers and students with clashing perspectives about the policy lined up with signs.

A group supporting the policy, donning white as a show of peace, said they would like to see the mask requirement remain in place to keep all children and staff members as safe as possible while on campus. Special education teacher Mary Holmes said those against the policy still have a choice.

“There’s no controversy,” Holmes said. “If they don’t want to wear masks, they have the option to stay home.”

The anti-mask crowd included members of the Concerned Parents Group of Sarasota County, which helped raise more than $11,300 through a GoFundMe page to hire an attorney to sue the district over the policy.

Doug LaFalce protests against the district's mask policy.
Doug LaFalce protests against the district's mask policy.

A petition accompanying the GoFundMe page states that it is not the district’s role to make medical decisions for all families.

“Each family has the right and freedom to make medical decisions independently,” the petition states. “We expect and demand that those rights are recognized by the Sarasota County School district and its board.”

On Tuesday, most of the anti-mask group was fighting for masks to be optional, not removed from schools entirely. Still, many against the policy believe the masks are harmful to students’ health.

In past meetings discussing the policy, the board has heard input from health experts, including Manuel Gordillo, an infectious disease specialist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Gordillo said that from the studies he has seen, there is no evidence of negative impact of prolonged mask-wearing, including fears of excessive carbon dioxide exposure.

Mask benefits, Gordillo said, far outweigh the possible risks.

Since the beginning of the year, the district has had 27 staff members and 116 students test positive for COVID-19 and 39 staff members and 453 students quarantined as a result of contact tracing, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Board members in favor of the policy said masks have helped stop the spread in schools, and the policy will stand until the county begins to see a significant decline in COVID-19 cases.

“Masks save lives more than anything,” board member Jane Goodwin said. “Until we have a vaccine, until the positivity rate and our hospitalization rate is way, way below 3%, I think we’ll be wearing masks.”


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