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Mask mandate lifted for students

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Sep 23, 2021


The School District of Lee County has reinstated an opt-out to its mask mandate, effective as of last Tuesday.

Citing a 1st District Court of Appeal stay issued Friday, “which means the Florida Department of Education can continue to enforce its interpretation of the parental opt out until this matter is ultimately resolved,” Superintendent Dr. Ken Savage, sent a letter to all parents Monday, readdressing the issue and reinstating the ability of parents to opt their child or children out of the district’s requirement that masks be worn.

“Therefore, starting on Tuesday, September 14, The School District of Lee County will require face coverings, while allowing parents to opt-out without a medical exemption.  This applies while being indoors on school campuses, indoors at school sponsored activities, and on school busses,” the letter states.

The requirement still will apply to district staff.

“As the stay only applies to students, District employees will still be required to wear masks and follow the medical exemption process as set forth through Human Resources,” the letter states.

The school board voted earlier this month to require masks be worn without opt-outs for parents after a judge ruled Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t have the power to restrict school boards from issuing mask mandates. School boards which have issued mask mandates without parental opt-outs have faced threats from the state Department of Education commissioner’s office of losing funding for their school board members, including Lee County Schools.

Savage said that he, and the district do understand that parents have the right to make decisions for their children. It is his hope, however, that most will opt for masks for the protection of their children and others.

“I will always be an advocate for parents’ rights,” he wrote. “I am especially considerate of those parents who want the right to send their child to school and not have to choose between the safety of their household and their child receiving an in-person, quality public education. I also can’t help but think of the rights of parents whose children lay isolated in the ICU at Golisano Children’s Hospital whose only desire is for their child to be able to survive this terrible ordeal.

“Given the legal landscape, I am appealing to your humanity and sense of community.  With approximately 500 COVID-19 patients isolated within our local hospital system, and a 101% staffed bed capacity over the weekend, remember that these aren’t just numbers. These are people. These are your neighbors, your family, your friends, your co-workers. I choose to believe that the vast majority of our community are reasonable, caring people who want this surge to end as quickly as possible and would willingly volunteer to wear masks as an additional measure to protect each other from harm.”

He closed with a plea for the children.

“Our students have demonstrated great resilience during this entire pandemic,” he wrote. “They just want to go to school, engage with their classmates and have some semblance of normalcy restored as soon as this tragic experience subsides. The vast majority of parents and staff want the same.

“I implore you to prove your commitment to each other by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and following other safety protocols to help us get through this surge together. I will never underestimate our community’s ability to show love and compassion for each other.”

The mandated mask policy, sans opt-out, had generated controversy among parents and officials up through the state level alike.

State Rep. Spencer Roach sent a letter to Savage on Sept. 10 stating that “in light of the stay granted this afternoon by the First District Court of Appeals restoring the right of parents to make health care decisions on behalf of their children, I demand that you immediately comply with Rule 64DER21-12 and rescind the illegal mask mandate that you unilaterally imposed on Aug. 30.”

Roach then punched up his position by saying a failure to do so would result in a call for Savage to be removed as district superintendent

“Failure to rescind this illegal order by close of business on Monday, Sept. 13 will result in my formal request to Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to terminate your employment with the Lee County School District, effective immediately,” he wrote. “Parents — not the government — have the sole authority to make health care decisions for their children, and I will use all the powers of my office to defend their right to do so.”

Roach said Tuesday afternoon that he applauded Savage for doing the right thing and lifting the mask mandate without a provision for parents to opt their children out. He said once the stay was put back in place, the district’s mask mandate was illegal.

“I’m grateful that they did that (lifted the mask mandate for students) and did the right thing by empowering parents,” Roach said, adding that he expects it will remain in place until the issue gets settled in the courts. “I am happy he is following the law and empowering parents to make the decision.”

Roach said the debate, which is very polarizing, is leaving the entire country split down the middle on both sides of vaccines and mask mandates.

“The issue for me is about the rule of law, no matter personal feelings about masks. I think we can all agree, our state employees have the responsibility to follow law. For me this was about making sure our school board and superintendent are following the law as determined by the courts and the attorney general,” Roach said. “We simply can’t have elected boards or appointed officers picking the laws to follow.”

He predicts the issue of who controls and makes those decisions about child healthcare and education will be a pivotal issue in 2022.

There are three bills for the upcoming legislation session that stem around school boards, Roach said. Those bills include making school board elections partisan again; making a school superintendent an elected position, so the position would be much more accountable to the people,;and bringing back eight- year term limits for school board members.

“I met the members of the Lee County School Board. This is not an attack on them. It’s not meant to be a negative. I respect their opinion, just disagree,” Roach said. “They truly, sincerely, believe that it is their job to represent teachers and teacher unions.”

He said in actuality, they represent parents and students.