Palm Beach County schools will reopen playgrounds, end mask use outdoors amid growing parent outcry

The Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | May 5, 2021 – Updated May 6 at 12:54pm

The district’s decision Wednesday night helps set the stage for the next discussion: whether to require masks in the school year that starts in August.

Palm Beach County public schools will reopen their playgrounds this week and make clear to administrators that children exercising outside no longer have to wear facial coverings, district officials decided Wednesday.

Pressured by school board members, Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy agreed at a board meeting to lift a ban on using playground equipment and clarify that students no longer need to wear masks while exercising outdoors.

The move comes as board members receive a barrage of requests from parents to loosen mask requirements and state officials act to limit local governments’ ability to require them.

Eager to show they are hearing parents’ concerns, board members said the changes would give children some relief on campus and set the stage for discussions about what the mask rules should be for the next school year.

“It’s a positive communication that we are listening, and I think it’s the first step,” board member Karen Brill said.

Playground shutdowns irk school board members, who demand they reopen

The school district has not been requiring students outdoors to wear masks, but many schools have chosen to make students do so, board members said.

Board member Barbara McQuinn said, for example, a physical education teacher at one school in her north-county district was recently requiring masks while students exercised on a running track.

Anti-mask demonstrator Jennifer Showalter holds a sign outside the Palm Beach County School District offices during a school board meeting on April 21, 2021 in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Anti-mask demonstrator Jennifer Showalter holds a sing outside the Palm Beach County School District offices during a school board meeting on April 21, 2021 in West Palm Beach, Florida . Greg Lovett/Palm Beach Post

Students still will be able to wear masks outdoors under the new rules if they prefer, board members said. Masks are still generally required for students and adults while they are inside school buildings, though they may remove them while eating or exercising indoors.

Several board members said they were troubled to learn that the district still was preventing students from using playground equipment. Fennoy said he had decided the equipment was safe to resume using but had not yet lifted the ban.

“We will definitely have them open in the summer,” Fennoy said. “I haven’t made a decision about whether we’ll open them right now.”

“For goodness sake, open the playgrounds,” School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri told him. “Just open up the playgrounds at the schools and let the kids play.”

Fennoy later agreed that administrators would make clear to parents this week that masks are not needed outdoors during physical activity and that he would tell schools to reopen their playground equipment.

Will students need masks next year? School board to start debate

The conversation arose as board member Marcia Andrews asked her colleagues to start making plans either to lift or loosen the mask requirements when the new school year starts in August.

“I really want to get them back to school and to get these masks off as quickly as possible,” Andrews said.

Mask requirements have been a divisive issue in the public schools all year. But with the option to learn from home ending this summer, the issue threatens to become even more explosive.

Last month, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran issued a letter to superintendents urging them to drop mandates in the coming school year.

Last week, dozens of parents called into the school board meeting to weigh in, with many asking the schools to keep the mask requirement and many asking that it be repealed.

Without any signals from board members about what to expect, many parents may leave the public schools either for private or charter schools where masks are optional, board members said.

Barbieri said the board will need to start debating soon what to do about masks in the next school year. 

“We’re getting hundreds and hundreds of emails from parents who want to take the masks off their kids,” he said. “We’ve got to have some discussion on this, so the parents know we are making a decision on this.”

Featured image: Third grader Alexa Posada, 8, listens to her teacher at Grassy Waters Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Florida on January 8, 2021. Greg Lovett/Palm Beach Post

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