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Lee School district imposes mandatory 30-day mask mandate

No 'opt-out' as of Sept. 1

By NATHAN MAYBERG - | Aug 31, 2021

Dr. Ken Savage, Superintendent of Schools

Days after a judge struck down the executive order of Gov. Ron DeSantis which barred schools from mandating masks be worn without opt-outs, the School District of Lee County has enacted a 30-day emergency policy requiring masks of students and staff without any opt-outs beginning Wednesday, Sept. 1.

The emergency action was taken by School Superintendent Kenneth Savage and was discussed with the school board Monday during a workshop at a special meeting called by the board.

School District of Lee County Board Chair Mary Fischer said Savage instituted the new policy under the local public health emergency clause of the district.

“We will be using masks and other mitigations for the next 30 days to see if we can get the numbers down,” Fischer said.

Fischer said the district’s actions were taken on the advice of the local medical community. On Monday, Lee Health announce its hospitals were at 98% of capacity in its intensive care unit after a record-setting day of admissions for COVID-19 cases. The hospital has been reporting 8-12 deaths daily from COVID-19 and increasing admissions at Golisano Children’s Hospital.

The district had previously had a mask mandate that parents could opt their children out of by signing a letter.

“Our numbers are up. The hospitals are saturated and the cases keeping going up,” Fischer said. “We want to have a safe and healthy workplace for our staff and safe and healthy classrooms for our students. We hope it won’t be necessary to keep going for longer than a month.”

* * *

The following is a transcript of Dr. Savage’s Comments during Monday’s workshop:

Before I say anything else, I just want to get a few caveats out of the way. Thank you first to our team. Even though it may not appear it, they never stopped meeting. They have met all summer, multiple days a week, to review each case, to continue to amend protocols and to continue to engage with health officials. There’s a lot more folks behind the folks you see up there. It’s just a significant number and a lot of cooperation with local folks. The work has never stopped. It began really when we experienced the less contagious version of this pandemic, the alpha variant, and it has just continued. As things have become worse in our community, the work has ramped up, certainly the stress for everyone, the hours and everything. I just want to pull us back to what I know is going to be a really important topic today and that is around the mask guidelines. So, number one, 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. Anything that I am relaying is just what has been conveyed to me by medical professionals or in written guidance from our governmental entities charged with providing this guidance.

* My primary position as the executive of this organization has been to enact our policies and procedures but also to uphold the law. I have maintained that my personal opinion is largely irrelevant and I will work just as hard for someone who disagrees with my personal opinion just as much as someone who I happen to share views with.

* 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.

* The decision relied on the separation of powers, and when the legislature put forward the parent bill of rights, they also empowered school districts as sovereign entities, with rights and privileges afforded to our governing body that are constitutionally protected.

* In addition to the parents’ rights, our community of voters also have their voice through the election of the school board members

*The School District does have authority, and this was acknowledged in Judge Cooper’s decision, that a mask mandate was clearly within the authority of the District.

* Now, let me again remind you, that I am not a fan of Masks and I’m not an expert in masks, so what I will relay here is not a product of my own judgment but relying on the medical judgment of others and the resources they have provided. Masks are not perfect and they clearly have shortcomings.They are not the most important mitigation measure. As I have been told, approved vaccination is far and away the most important measure when it comes to reducing emergency rooms, ICU, and deaths related to COVID-19.

* 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.

* 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. This was also the specific subject of the large group of local physicians who issued a petition to us.

* When considering the conflicting opinions, we have a organized group of individuals, many of whom do not have any children in our school system, very few have identified as doctors among that group, and while I do find the focus on parent choice and constitutional rights as admirable, it does not prevail against the overwhelming medical advisement locally, nor the acknowledged benefits attributed to masking from our state and local departments of health, the state surgeon general, and virtually all reputable medical or scientific bodies that recommend indoor masking to limit respiratory droplets as part of a more comprehensive mitigation strategy.

* We also know that with our mitigation efforts last year, including universal masks, we experienced historically low numbers of documented child hospitalization from flu transmission, and we know that many colds and the flu transmission occur in some similar ways to COVID-19.

* It also bears mentioning that the State Surgeon General, who issued the medical opinion upon which the Governor stated his Emergency Order, has indicated he is stepping down from his position.

* It has also been brought to my attention that many insurance companies across the country are threatening not to honor coverage in pandemic related lawsuits if public-health guidance is not followed. That raises a significant concern about additional financial risk to our organization if we ignore any of these mitigation measures.

* Let me read a quote from Dr. Antonucci the CEO of our largest local health provider earlier today, “There’s so much misinformation out there on the internet. I’m asking everyone to please trust your physician. We’ve had years of training. We’re scientists. We keep up with the journals. We know the research. We understand the vaccine. We understand how it works and we believe it is safe and effective.”

* On Sunday, Lee Health admitted 92 COVID-19 patients, the most in a single day through the entire pandemic locally. That was yesterday. When our local CEO of our healthcare system tells us we are at the limit and there is an additional mitigation effort available to us that is consistent with the overwhelming medical scientific opinion and our local health providers, I do find that compelling and I must be responsive to that. We do not take a poll or equate general input from the citizenry about their preferences. We are instead responsive to the medical and scientific community.

* Therefore, I am removing the Governor’s “parent opt-out” as it was deemed that the Governor exceeded his constitutional authority in requiring that parent opt-out provision and the mask-related harassment. I am returning to our full guidelines within Board Policy 1.181 which requires indoor masking for all of our employees and students unless they qualify for a medical or ADA exemption as was implemented last year.

* While many other school districts are issuing these mask mandates for 90-120 days, I will only be issuing this full execution of these guidelines for 30 days beginning on Wednesday, September 1st so that we can continue to track the local infection statistics in two successive 14-day cycles and the impact it has within our schools, our local health care providers, and the community. I will downgrade the mask requirement to “strongly recommended” when the data and local health guidance determines that we are able to safely do so.

* I also think it is important to share with the board, our district staff, and our public that this most recent court decision may very well end up being contested in the courts or the legislature. My decision today is being responsive to the law as it stands today but that can change. I think it is important to acknowledge that while this is what the current legal interpretation is today, it does not appear to be well-settled law. On the contrary, we will continue to monitor and evaluate risk and benefit on an ongoing basis as we have done since the inception of the pandemic.

* While we are stuck in this difficult moment of uncertainty, we will have to rely predominantly on our local health officials, our local health providers, and the wisdom of our board to act in accordance with the law but maintain the safety of our students and staff as the highest priority and our chief obligation in order to provide local public education.

While I’m sure there are those who are very pleased with this decision today, I can assure you that this is not a panacea. Simply masking is not going to result in the elimination of the pandemic in our schools and community. This is just one additional countermeasure. I want to reiterate the guidance from our health officials that the best way to diminish a risk of hospitalization or death is to get vaccinated (if you are able) if you have not already done so. I also want to reiterate to all of our families and staff that if you are sick or exhibiting symptoms, please stay home and follow the protocols. We are excited about the additional testing that will help us identify positivity sooner and the additional staff and coordination with our local DOH to help identify, contact trace, and respond faster.

This is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment in our entire community and our school system is just one partner in that effort. To those that are angry with the decision today, I will not likely be able to assuage your frustration. I can only say, if we can save even one additional life that would have otherwise perished, then this extraordinary additional effort will have been worth it. I also maintain that you are entitled to your potentially conflicting perspective and every due process remedy you are afforded. I will continue to stand for the law and will trust in the democratic and legal process to reconcile varying interpretations of the laws of our great state and nation. Thank you.

Transcript source: School District of Lee County