Despite protests from several community members, the Sarasota County School Board on Tuesday took steps toward extending the district’s face mask policy through the end of the school year.
The policy requires students and staff to wear nonporous face masks while on campus and while riding school buses unless they have a doctor’s note stating they are medically unable to do so.
A proposed policy, which will be voted on in October, would extend those rules through the end of the school year in June.
Because the district introduced the policy as an emergency, by law it can only be in effect for 90 days, which means it will expire in November.
Although the new policy would likely last through the end of the year, board members did add a new concession: allowing “mask breaks” for students.
During a workshop Tuesday morning, Michael Drennon, the program manager for disease intervention services for Department of Health Sarasota, advised board members that breaks would be possible if done under specific conditions.
Drennon said the best solution would be to allow students to have breaks while outside, socially distanced and to keep the breaks under five minutes. Board members, however, settled on an exception that would allow students to remove their masks for five minutes or less when they are behind their desk shields and are social distanced.
Although they did not formally vote on the policy Tuesday, board members signaled support for an extension.
Board member Shirley Brown expressed concerns that although recent numbers have trended downward, they could begin to grow during flu season or after businesses open at capacity. As of Tuesday evening, there were 25 reported cases in the district — 23 students and two teachers — according to the district’s COVID-19 Dashboard.
Board member Jane Goodwin agreed, stating that the countywide pediatric positivity rate is at 9.6%, and she would like to see that decrease before considering a removal of the policy.
“Our teachers have told us [and] our employees have told us that they need protection,” Goodwin said. “We know that children can be carriers in an asymptomatic fashion of COVID-19 and that they feel very much that they need protection.”
Many residents who spoke voiced concerns over the mental and physical toll they say their children are experiencing due to the district’s reopening policy.
“The masking, distancing and isolating that has been implemented as a part of this year’s school opening regimen is causing ongoing emotional distress that the body processes as trauma,” said Carley Sullivan, a therapist who has four children in the district. “We are creating a culture of fear in our kids.”
During the workshop, board members heard from health officials from the Department of Health in Sarasota County and Manuel Gordillo, an infectious disease specialist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Board members Bridget Ziegler and Eric Robinson questioned at what transmission rate the health officials would deem the masks no longer necessary. Chuck Henry, an administrator for DOH-Sarasota, said board members could revisit the policy if the transmission rate sat at zero for an extended period of time.
However, he said that would be unlikely until a vaccine is available. All the officials said masks will be the norm in everyday life until a vaccine is widely available.
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.
“It’s like asking when we can stop wearing seat belts because we haven’t had any accidents,” he said.