Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | June 17, 2021
Face masks likely will be voluntary in Orange County Public Schools in the coming school year, though a final vote to repeal current COVID-19 face covering rules will not take place until next month.
The Orange County School Board by consensus Thursday expressed support for making face masks optional for the 2021-22 school year. The eight board members reached that agreement after a sometimes heated three-hour meeting that was halted twice because of audience behavior and brought to the podium several parents wearing t-shirts that read, “Unmask Our Kids.”
The board is to vote on its new face mask rules July 13, likely repealing a face mask requirement put in place last summer to help the school district safely open campuses during the coronavirus pandemic. If the board votes to approve the new policy, face masks would become voluntary by Aug. 2, or just ahead of the new school year that starts Aug. 10.
“I definitely thinks it’s time for masks to be optional,” Chair Teresa Jacobs said.
She and other board members said Orange County’s low virus positivity rate — now below 4% — and growing number of vaccinated residents made them feel face mask decisions for students should be left to parents.
If the board repeals its current “mask mandate,” it will be mirroring what has happened in neighboring school districts.
In Lake County, face masks became optional on campuses starting this month with summer school. The Volusia County School Board voted Monday to make face masks optional effective immediately, and the Seminole County School Board is to vote on the issue next week. In Osceola County, they will be optional starting July 1.
Most of the about 40 speakers at Thursday’s Orange meeting urged the board to drop any mask requirement.
“We know what is best for our children,” said Allison Stout, a parent from Apopka with two children in county elementary schools. “It’s our choice,” she said. “Please just listen to everybody.”
She and others said masks were ineffective and often dirty and hindered children’s abilities to hear their teachers or to make needed connections with classmates.
“If masks are mandated again next year, my children will not be attending OCPS schools,” another mother said.
Some of the speakers said current face rules inflicted psychological damage on children or stifled their rights. One boy wearing an anti-mask t-shirt told the board, “This is a free country. Please drop the mask mandate.”
Others said requiring masks in schools made no sense when they were no longer required in so many other places in Florida.
A number of speakers said they were upset that members of the board’s medical advisory panel — which includes pediatricians and infectious disease experts from Orlando hospitals — said masks should remain mandatory for children younger than 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated.
But that was not the recommendation of Superintendent Barbara Jenkins and her staff, who proposed the board adopt a voluntary face mask policy for the 2021-22 school year. Staff members cited both waning cases and pressure from state leaders. In April, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told superintendents he did not want mandatory face mask rules in place in any of Florida’s public schools when the new year started in August.
Other speakers suggested, wrongly, the board was trying to mandate vaccines for students.
“That is not something that is in this policy,” Jacobs said. “It’s just not on the table for consideration.”
Several parents, however, spoke in favor of requiring masks for elementary school students because there is no approved vaccine for children 11 and younger. Elementary school students with disabilities could be at higher risk of complications should they contract the virus, making masks an important safeguard for them, they said.
“It leaves those children with fewer options,” said parent Judi Hayes, who has a son with Downs syndrome. “And that’s not fair to them.”
Hayes urged the board not to listen to “nonsense” from those who don’t see the value in masks. That prompted a loud reaction from some in the audience, and Jacobs than called a recess and the board members left the room.
“Recess until the moon comes out,” one man shouted, “you’re going to unmask us.”
That was the second time the meeting was halted. The first was soon after it started at 1 p.m. when some in the audience refused to put on masks, as school board policy currently requires in any OCPS building.
The board took a recess and a security officer and a district administrator urged audience members to wear masks, so board members could hear their views.
Several board members said they worried about children with disabilities and asked Jenkins what could be done to make sure they were safe on campus.
Board member Karen Castor Dentel said she would have supported requiring masks for those in elementary school, as the medical advisors suggested, but realized her seven other colleagues sounded unlikely to join her.
Board member Linda Kobert said she wanted to find ways to protect the district’s most vulnerable students but also thought it was best for the district to repeal its mandatory policy.
“There is no policy we could write or approve that would work for 100% of our students,” she added.
Featured image: A student celebrates as he leaves the campus of Windermere High School on the last day of school on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. Orange County Public Schools students had to wear face masks on campus during the 2020-21 school year, but the Orange County School Board may make face masks option for the 2021-22 school year. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)