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Voluntary masks, more flexibility for upcoming school year

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Aug 3, 2021


Smiles, not masks.

Parental choice, not mandates.

That is the message Gov. Ron DeSantis shared Friday morning at a press conference in Cape Coral called to announce an executive order that will prohibit school systems from mandating masks.

“I think the decision about whether parents want their kids to wear masks, I think that decision falls squarely in the contours of this parents bill of rights that I signed,” DeSantis said.

The new legislation, which went into effect July 1, lists the rights of parents as they pertain to education, health care, and criminal justice procedures. The bill prohibits “the state, its political subdivisions, any other governmental entities and any other institutions from infringing upon the fundamental right of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating a compelling state interest for such actions.”

According to DeSantis, who said he has followed and correctly interpreted data pertaining to COVID-19 since the beginning, there is no peer-reviewed analysis or validated U.S. studies that demonstrate a new need for masks, particularly for children.

“If you have been listening to some of the murmurs going around, particularly in Washington lately, listen to some of the stuff that’s being percolated around the CDC; there’s a movement to try to impose more restrictions on the American people,” DeSantis said. “And I just want to say in Florida, there will be no lockdowns. There will be no school closures. There will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida.”

Instead, parents will make the best choice for their children as he and his wife have made for theirs, he said.

“I have young kids,” DeSantis said. “My wife and I are not going to do the mask with the kids, we never have. I want to see my kids smiling.”

If parents think otherwise, that is OK, too, he said.

“At the same time, if a parent really feels that this is something that’s important for their kid, we’re not stopping that,” DeSantis said. “They absolutely have every right to equip their students with whatever types of mask that they want, and have them go to school, if they believe that that’s a protection that’s important for their children. I think that’s the fairest way to do it, to let the parents have the decision.”

Schools in Lee County have already decided to lean more towards normal this coming school year as some of the safety protocols have been relaxed for the return of students and teachers for the start of school on Aug. 10.

“The symptom-based isolation protocols are a major change. There is no doctors note required to return for low-risk symptoms,” School District Chief of Staff Lauren Stillwell said. “The district went to voluntary masks in late June. That will remain in place for the school year.”

Although masks will be voluntary for the 2021-2022 school year, the district encourages those who are not vaccinated to continue to wear a mask. For those who choose to wear a mask, they must follow the Student Code of Conduct apparel guidelines.

Students that are in the isolation room at school may be asked to wear a mask until their parent picks them up from school.

The reason a student may or may not have to wear a mask in the isolation room has to do with the symptoms they are showing. Health Services Coordinator Beth Wipf said some of the symptoms are not respiratory symptoms, such as a headache or diarrhea. If they are exhibiting such symptoms as a cough, runny nose, or sneezing they will be asked to wear a mask to protect staff and other students.

Board member Betsy Vaughn said that made no sense to her.

“Even if they are not coughing that breath coming out of them would be detrimental to the nurse, or clinical assistant in there,” she said.

Vaughn also showed concern about the “honor system,” since in the state of Florida you are not allowed to ask for vaccination proof.

“I am hoping as we see this spike every week go up from the Delta variant and people vaccinated with break through infections that may be asymptomatic, that we are little more protective,” she said. “A little more proactive. We need to do a better job at educating our community on the facts and being very proactive in educating on the dangers.”

One of the changes this year is categorizing symptoms into high risk and low risk.

“If a student or employee has low-risk symptoms, we are asking them to stay home. They must be symptom free for 24 hours without medication to return,”Wipf said, adding that they will not need a doctor’s note to return to campus.

The low-risk symptoms include a fever of 104. or higher, congestion/runny nose, muscle or body aches, headache, fatigue, sore throat, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea.

“We may have to shift some of our low- risk symptoms back to high risk,” Wipf said if guidance is provided by the CDC and the Florida Department of Health Lee County.

High-risk symptoms include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, cough and new loss of taste or smell.

Another change is if an employee or student is fully vaccinated, two weeks after their second dose, will not have to quarantine. She said if the employee or student is not vaccinated they have to quarantine for 10 days. It could be reduced to seven days, with returning on the eighth day if they have a negative PCR test on day six or later after exposure.

Stillwell said the Florida Department of Health has a list of those vaccinated and will be able to look up to see if someone can go off the quarantine list.

“At this point the classroom teacher determines how lessons are accessed while under quarantine,” Wipf said.

There was a great deal of conversation around it being left up to the teacher. Many board members shared concern about there needing to be consistency district wide of how teachers will reach the students in an effort not to lose so much instruction.

“My daughter had to quarantine five times,” Board member Chris Patricca said.“My question is what consideration have we given to make up for the lost learning time when students are forced to quarantine will experience?”

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jeff Spiro said everyone will have Google Classrooms. He said similar to this past year, the teacher will determine if they will allow Zoom, or not.

There is still bargaining taking place with TALC that will determine what will happen.

Spiro said it is quite an art form to balance face-to-face and teaching students on the computer.

If there is a positive case, the district will notify the school’s community through email, text and a phone call. Closure of a classroom, school and district will remain the same.

Stillwell said when they quarantined a classroom last year there was 5 percent of teachers, students or staff who were COVID positive in a 10-day period.

Safety, Security & Emergency Management Executive Director Dave Newlan said social distancing will take place to the greatest extent possible. Grouping will continue this year,with more flexibility in putting groups together. Seating charts for classrooms, buses and lunchrooms will continue to be kept.

Although hand sanitizer will be available in key locations throughout the school, students are encouraged to bring their own. Students also are encouraged to bring their own water bottles and will have a chance to refill at the water filling stations.

High-frequency cleaning of common surfaces will continue to be done throughout the day, as well as positive case triggered cleaning protocols. Those protocols will take place when an individual has tested positive and has been in a district vehicle, or building within 24 hours.

This year athletic facilities, locker rooms and gyms will be open with cleaning schedules conducted for those areas. Playgrounds will be disinfected after every day and hands will be washed before and after play.

Buses will be cleaned after the morning and afternoon riders.

In addition, there will be regular cleaning with food-safe agents in areas where food is prepared, stored and served and quarterly air filtration replacements will take place.

Newlan said unlike last year, with only essential visitors able to enter the campus, there will be more relaxed protocols in place.

“If the school is welcoming visitors and volunteers, a health screening form must be completed,” he said.

In addition, accurate information of where they are located and what students they are working with will be kept.

Newlan said they are asking visitors who are not vaccinated to wear a mask and social distance while on campus. He said if they are experiencing symptoms they are asked not to come to school and refer to their health care provider for testing and care.

Stillwell said the word is “flexible” this year as they move through the school year to ensure students and employees stay safe and healthy. She said the school houses will be more normal than last year, but with some protocols in place to ensure the health and safety of students and employees.

“They may change throughout the year based on health conditions and updated guidance from health professionals,” Stillwell said.

Wipf said the current state data from July 16 through July 22 shows that those 12 and older who have been vaccinated is 58 percent. In that same time frame there are 1,650 positive cases of COVID-19 in Lee County.

“We do know the Delta variant is bringing COVID numbers up,” she said.

The over arching message, no matter what the numbers are, is to keep students and staff safe by reminding students, employees and staff to please stay home if they are sick, Wipf said. She is asking for their help is keeping the positivity and exposure numbers of COVID down.

According to the district wide 2020-2021 data there were approximately 2,800 positive cases — 910 employees and 3,910 students. There were approximately 20,260 exposures — 1,120 employees, 18,690 students and 446 unknown.

The district’s COVID-19 Information Center will remain in place with hours from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Those who are looking for information can call 239-356-2800. Stillwell said the first week of school those hours may be extended.