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Lee Schools superintendent issues 30-day mask mandate

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Aug 31, 2021

School Superintendent Kenneth Savage

Under emergency powers granted by the school board last year, Lee County School Superintendent Dr. Ken Savage imposed a 30-day mask mandate Monday with implementation to begin Wednesday.

“I just want to state that I don’t like wearing a mask. I don’t like putting masks on my children and I really am bothered every day when I walk into our schools and I see children across the district, many of whom are wearing masks. It looks impersonal, it feels unnatural, and it is just a sign that is very disturbing when I walk around in our schools. I am not a fan of wearing a mask and I’m also not an expert on masks,” Savage said Monday afternoon. “When I implemented the modified guidelines utilizing policy 1.181, I qualified that the mask requirement could be opted out by any parent in accordance with Governor DeSantis’ Executive Orders, and up until Friday, the Governor’s Executive Order required a simple parent opt-out. After a Leon Circuit Court decision on Friday, and a written opinion coming today, that is no longer the case.”

Savage made the decision on the acknowledgment in Judge Cooper’s decision that a mask mandate is clearly within the authority of the district.

“Most masks are not able to filter out aerosolized particles. Those aerosols are so small they move right through most masks, and while the aerosolized virus can move in that fashion, it is not the aerosolized virus that is the target of masks. To the best of my understanding, what is the target of the masks are respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets are expelled with talking, certainly sneezing, and respiratory droplets can contain significant amounts of virus,” he said. “Utilizing masks indoors is considered one of the most significant mitigation measures when there is insufficient room for social distancing as specified by the CDC and the vast majority of medical providers, as well as our local medical community.”

The 30-day timeframe chosen so the district can have two 14-day periods during which to track transmission levels of the COVID-19 virus, Savage said, adding the requirement will be relaxed as soon as the district is able to do so.

Board Attorney Kathy Dupuy-Bruno assured members of the school board that the action can be deemed reasonable and necessary, as it is narrowly tailored.

Board member Chris Patricca said they have the legal authority to institute a mask mandate with a limited parental opt out with medical exemptions.

Board member Betsy Vaughn said she would have liked to see a stronger metric of where they were Monday.

“We are way up the mountain. How much of a decrease would warrant pulling back?” she asked.

Savage said she had a very fair point and the district does have an obligation to show transparency. He said the team will monitor and track the data.

“If we were to develop a hard metric, it would be in collaboration with local officials,” Savage said, adding that the threshold would be chosen with their partners. “Where we are now is not desirable. The intention is we see a decrease. We are hopeful this surge will pass.”

The public had an opportunity to speak Monday night about mandated masks, although no vote was taken by the board regarding the administrative mandate.

Before the 60 speakers were afforded their minute to share their comment, they were given guidelines to state their name, if they live in Lee County and how many children they had attending schools in the district. After three speakers shared their comment, a five minute recess was taken, followed by two more 10 minute recesses before the end of public comment.

The majority of the comments stemmed around parental rights, that a parent knows their child and should make decisions for their child. Speakers also maintained that masking does not help.

One parent, Valinda Neeley, said people have been masking for the better part of a year and a half now, that if masks work, they would not be having this discussion.

“The virus is still here. How long are we going to keep up this charade? How many more variants are going to arise to make you feel that you need to keep masking? Suppressing people’s natural immune system for a year and a half did nothing to eradicate this virus and it won’t this time either. Despite your desire for control, you won’t be able to control this nor us. If you want to wear a mask and give yourself the false sense of protection then by all means go ahead and go for it. They work and you’re wearing one then my child shouldn’t have to. You’re protected, logic, right?” she said.

Another parent was a strong advocate for parent’s choice and said that their children should not be the board’s political pawns.

“Our children belong to us,” she said. “My child not covering her face has no bearing on a child that covers theirs.”

Another parent, Lindsay Young, referenced the school board’s policy of responsibility.

“Nowhere in here does it say you have any right to help me parent my child, or make decisions for me and my child,” she said, adding that they have awakened a “sleeping beast.”

Savage said any personal hostility and frustration needs to be directed towards the district staff, rather than teachers and principals, as the mask mandate was not a school based decision. He said they would hold a meeting with principals Tuesday to provide scripted guidance for those students and teachers who do not wear a mask to school. Savage said they will attempt to work with families the best they can by providing them with options.

“I am anticipating some pushback from staff,” he said, adding that they will follow employment guidelines and go through progressive discipline.

Board Chair Debbie Jordan said these are difficult and trying times.

“We know and understand everyone does not see eye to eye on this topic. We understand that it is sensitive. We respect parents rights as we try our best to protect our students and staff. We have a difficult balance and the decision made by the superintendent today strikes that balance and is for a short period of time very narrowly tailored to address the health crisis in our local community. Honestly, if a mask can protect, or save one life, isn’t it worth it? Shouldn’t we do all we can for our fellow human beings? For the teachers that are under so much stress, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, our staff, our students? Thirty days of inconvenience for the possibility of protecting, saving one life. That is what this is about.”

The board was again briefed on the district’s health and safety protocols during its Monday meeting, which included statistics of the week ending of Aug. 26. Chief Engagement Officer Lauren Stillwell said there was a 21.3 percent positivity rate with 639 patients isolated in the hospitals, 15 of whom are children at Golisano’s Children Hospital. She said the bed capacity at the hospitals reached 100 percent.

Last week the district launched its COVID-19 Incident Log, which shows the total number of COVID cases at each school and how many of those are students and staff, as well as cumulative since the first day of school Aug. 10. Stillwell said it is important to remember that the data may lag, as the lab has 24 to 48 hours to report to the Department of Health.

The district received almost 3,500 reports, 3,000 that they still needed to process as of Monday afternoon from last Sunday to Saturday. The district is adding additional workforce and providing training to help during and after school hours. The district is also in the process of providing the Department of Health access to the reports in real time to help expedite the process.

Board member Gwyn Gittens said if they are behind and DOH is behind on tracing, then during that period of time people who are infectious are spreading it to others.

“If it’s not lowering the numbers then we revisit it,” she said of the mandate. “Thirty days of compromise. It’s 30 days. It’s all we are asking for.”

Challenges also include teachers and students being out, substitute availability, classes are being paired together to fill the need and students are missing out on instruction time while at home.

Vaughn said when combining classroom B with classroom A it complicates the issue because currently without masks they rely on social distancing and other mitigation measures.

“Now with classrooms double up or more, we have too many people in a room, and I’m wondering if we can even do tracing,” she asked. “Are we still able to do any kind of contact tracing?”

Stillwell said when combining classes they look for wider spaces and a seating chart is still being used. She said masking does not preclude quarantining.

“Even if wearing a mask, we still will be quarantining. The masking, while experts say can help prevent transmission, it will not preclude quarantining,” she said, adding that when a student is identified as a close contact, they will be quarantined.

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jeff Spiro said when a student is out they are being asked to switch to Google Classrooms, which is where teachers post assignments and the best way and time to reach them. He said they also have tutoring opportunities for students through Connect With Lee. On Sept. 7 day hours will be added providing those students at home with an opportunity to connect.

“District staff is going to be leading this endeavor,” Spiro said of Zoom links available by content area and grade level. “District administrators are doing it first and then district staff. We have over 70 on to do this.”