Sarasota schools mask rule to remain intact

Sarasota Herald Tribune | by Ryan McKinnon | May 18, 2021

Masks are most likely here to stay for the final three weeks of the Sarasota County School District year. 

During a Tuesday workshop the School Board held what will probably be the final discussion on the board’s mask policy for this year, with board members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose pushing to make the mask requirement optional.

“I want to see masks be optional as soon as possible,” Ziegler said, adding that she had been pushing for a plan to scale back the plan since February and was not disregarding the amount of disruption that such a change could cause with just three weeks left of school. 

“The win-win for me is giving families the option of whether they send their child to school with a mask or without,” Rose said. 

They were in the minority, though, and after the workshop Ziegler said she would ask the superintendent to draft policy that would go into effect July 1 if the board would not go along with an immediate change at a board meeting later Tuesday. 

Superintendent Brennan Asplen, who typically remains on the sidelines during policy discussions, said his biggest concern was making such a major change in the middle of state testing and just before graduation ceremonies.

Asplen said he had polled the district’s principals Tuesday morning to see how they felt about the policy change, and he said the consensus was that it could trigger a domino effect of unintended consequences, largely around the logistics of running a large school district.   

“I think we all would love to get rid of these masks,” Asplen said. “…But right now it is a timing issue and right now is not the right time, especially from an educational standpoint and staying consistent.”

Lexi Schafer,7, shows off her unicorn mask while playing outside in Venice last September. ( Herald-Tribune photo / Matt Houston )
Lexi Schafer, 7, shows off her unicorn mask while playing outside in Venice last September Herald-Tribune photo / Matt Houston

Asplen said that board members should consider the challenge of communicating a rule change to students and parents, and then enforcing that rule effectively. He also said the disruptive nature of changing a policy to go against current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control could prove to be a massive disruption. 

Board attorney Patrick Duggan threw another wrench into any hopes of flipping the switch when he told the board it would need to give proper legal notice and call a special meeting to make an emergency policy change.

Most policy changes take place over at least a month for the public to have proper input, but because school ends in just three weeks, the board would have to agree that the current mask policy was “an immediate danger to public health, safety or welfare.”

Board chairwoman Shirley Brown said she wouldn’t be comfortable calling an emergency meeting to assert that wearing masks posed such a threat. 

“We have been following CDC and health department guidelines,” Brown said. “Now is not the time to make that change.”

Board members Jane Goodwin and Tom Edwards agreed that such a change at this point in the year was not wise. Goodwin said she would continue to wear a mask out of solidarity with the children in Sarasota schools, and Edwards said hearing how heavy a lift it would be for principals had convinced him it was not worth it. 

While masks have been a hot-button issue for more than a year, mixed messaging from the CDC, along with the nature of the virus have fueled calls for students to not be subjected to mask policies any more. 

Last week the CDC announced that anyone who has been fully vaccinated does not need to wear a mask indoors, an announcement that could have meant teachers and some older students went mask-free, while the unvaccinated did not.

Over the weekend, the CDC issued communication saying that did not apply to schools, and school boards should keep their current COVID-19 policies in place. In Sarasota, like most districts, that means wearing a mask regardless of vaccination status. 

Vaccination events in schools

Last Saturday, roughly 820 students between the ages of 12 and 17 got vaccinated at a  distribution clinic at Sarasota Square Mall, according to Michael Drennon, program manager for Disease Intervention Services for the Department of Health in Sarasota. 

With the Pfizer vaccine approved for children in that age range, and expectations for younger children to gradually be approved, school leaders want to help get shots in arms. 

That does not mean schools will be administering shots — simply that school leaders are offering up sites as potential distribution spots. 

“We will not go into school and vaccinate the kids,” Brown said. “The parents have to bring the student to us… we will not vaccinate without a parent present.”

Sarasota school officials are working with local health officials to hold vaccination events for children who are currently eligible for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Another vaccination clinic will take place at the mall on Saturday, and health and school officials will announce when new sites begin opening up at schools. The discussion on Tuesday centered around holding one-time events at schools either on weekends or in the evenings. 

Assistant Superintendent and Chief Operations Officer Jody Dumas said the school district would continue to explore how to best partner with the Health Department. 

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