PBC schools not considering fall mask mandate, chairman says
The Palm Beach County School Board took a closer look at the school district's reopening plan for the new academic year.
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Board member Dr. Debra Robinson voiced her concerns about the increase of COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County and said the thought of children working closely together without wearing masks was concerning.
Palm Beach County's positivity rate is now at 12 percent and rapidly rising.
"I want to stress where we are with these [COVID] numbers," Robinson said. "On June 18, 2020, in Palm Beach County, the daily new case rate was 18.2 per 100,000. Today it's 23.7."
Robinson said she recognized the ongoing pandemic has brought on fatigue, but they have to look at the current situation.
"We can't put our head in the sand, and especially when we have the responsibility over a couple hundred thousand lives," Robinson said.
Shortly after Robinson's comments, School Board Chair Frank Barbieri vehemently said they are not considered a mandatory school mask mandate for the fall.
"To suggest to the public that this board is considering putting a mandate back in for masks is the farthest thing from the truth," Barbieri said. "I just want to make that clear to the public."
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Earlier in the night, the school board listened to multiple hours of public comment from parents vehemently opposed to another mask mandate being imposed on students.
Under the School District of Palm Beach County's plan for the 2021/22 academic year, which is slated to begin on Aug. 10, facial coverings will be optional for all students, staff members, and visitors inside school buildings and on school district transportation.
The district is planning a full return to in-classroom instruction next month. Distance learning related to the COVID-19 pandemic has been eliminated.
However, concerns are growing among parents and doctors about the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, which now accounts for 83% of coronavirus cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While medical officials said the COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are all effective against the Delta variant, only children 12 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine, leaving many students vulnerable to the virus.
That's why Palm Beach County parents like Meagan Bell are urging school district leaders to reinstate the district's mask mandate for the new school year.
"We're moving around the community unmasked, and we just watched cases go up, up, up since then," Bell said. "So it's common sense to go back to what was working."
Palm Beach County Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy, who's resigning effective Oct. 11, told WPTV last week that face masks are still "absolutely" optional, despite fears over the Delta variant.
However, he added that school district officials are closely monitoring the latest with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The emotions around [face masks], you have people who believe in the science, people that don't believe in the science. You have people that want masks, don't," Fennoy said. "We'll make our decisions in the best interests of students. And then families will have to make those decisions based on that."
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The highly charged emotions surrounding face coverings for children reached a climax late last school year when dozens of parents held multiple rallies, urging the school district to both eliminate and keep its then-mask mandate.
"I'm very, very concerned," Bell said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday he doesn't think face mask mandates would be productive because the current vaccines are so effective.
"If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero," DeSantis said.
"Vaccinated individuals have been proven not to transmit the virus," said Dr. Leslie Diaz, an infectious disease specialist in North Palm Beach.
Diaz said the Delta variant is more contagious and more transmissible than any other COVID-19 variant. Couple that with stagnant vaccination rates, Diaz said it's not surprising that cases are surging.
"We have no mandates whatsoever," Diaz said. "Everybody is maskless. No social distancing and unvaccinated. It's almost expected."
In addition to optional face masks, field trips and before-and-after-school programs will resume for the 2021/22 academic year in Palm Beach County, along with clubs and in-person performances at all levels. Sports will realign with the Florida High School Athletic Association schedule, and concession stands will be open at athletic events.
There are also changes to health procedures and quarantines. Fully vaccinated employees will not be sent home if exposed to COVID-19, unless they are showing symptoms.
If a student reports a positive COVID-19 test, he or she must stay home until they are symptom-free, including no fever of 100.4 degrees or higher for at least 24 hours without fever-reducing medicine.
If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracers will come in to determine if anyone else was exposed. Officials said if students and staff members have received the coronavirus vaccine, they may not need to quarantine.
Officials said distance learning is being suspended when students are forced to quarantine. Instead, they'll be given make-up work to complete.
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