The Sarasota County School Board voted 3-2 to adopt a 90-day policy mandating masks for students and teachers in indoor settings within the district, defying state regulations that seek to prohibit local officials from implementing such a measure.
A majority of the School Board said the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases locally necessitated a mask requirement without the ability for parents to opt out voluntarily, a provision in the policy Manatee County adopted earlier this week. At an emergency meeting today, board members cited state data, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and testimony from local school and health officials to support their decision.
“I must oversee and provide a safe learning environment,” board member Tom Edwards said. “I must oversee and provide the best education possible. I look to keep employees safe and students safe.”
The school district joins Broward and Alachua counties as Florida school districts that have moved forward with a mask mandate despite an order from Gov. Ron DeSantis that seeks to prohibit such regulations. Patrick Duggan, the school district’s legal counsel, said he believed the adopted policy violated the governor’s order as well as a state statute and an order from the Florida Department of Health.
Still, Duggan said he believed it was possible to make a good-faith argument in favor of the legality of the district’s adopted mandate. Board members Shirley Brown and Jane Goodwin, who joined Edwards in supporting the proposal, noted there is pending litigation challenging DeSantis’s order on masks in schools.
Board members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose said the state prohibitions were among the reasons for their opposition to the mask mandate. Ziegler said adopting such a policy could pose a financial risk for the district. Today, state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran pledged to withhold the salaries of school board members in Broward and Alachua in response to their mask mandates.
“I am highly concerned that we would be adopting something that we (know) — and many of this board have recognized — is against the law,” Ziegler said. “It may be under litigation right now, but it will certainly be something that we may have to pay a serious price for.”
Both Ziegler and Rose said they recognized the need for mitigation efforts and believed there were alternate options for reducing the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools. But after district officials expressed concerns about the effects of the coronavirus on school operations less than one week into the academic year, a majority of the board felt a mask requirement was a justifiable response to what one Sarasota Memorial Hospital representative described as an acute health crisis.
“As John Donne stated so beautifully, ‘The death of any man diminishes me,’” Goodwin said. “Let that not be our children or our staff.”
Today’s emergency meeting drew more than two and a half hours of public input, with a majority of speakers voicing their opposition to the prospect of mask requirements. Brown, Goodwin and Edwards admonished members of the audience for speaking out of turn during the meeting, with the board adjourning at least four times due to interjections from individuals opposed to a mask mandate. Brown, the board chair, attempted to restrict public commentary to straightforward feedback on the mask policies under consideration.
Multiple members expressed dismay at the discord surrounding the mask conversation.
“I have never, ever witnessed the division that exists in this community,” Rose said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The policy adopted by the board includes a clause that would eliminate the mask requirement if the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests in Sarasota County falls below 8% for three consecutive days. The policy would reactivate if the county had three consecutive days with a positivity rate above 10%. There is also a provision allowing for medical exemptions to the mandate.
According to state data, the new case positivity rate was 18.6% in Sarasota for the week ending Aug. 19. On Friday, the school district’s COVID-19 dashboard showed 602 students and staff members who were quarantined because they had tested positive for COVID-19 or were deemed a close contact of a positive individual. Of those, 315 were students who tested positive for the disease.
This is a developing story and will be updated.