Despite judge’s ruling, school board won’t mandate masks in classrooms

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 9/8/21

FLEMING ISLAND – A judge’s recent ruling doesn’t change whether the school board can enact a mask mandate, according to the school board.

More than a dozen public speakers spoke directly to …

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Despite judge’s ruling, school board won’t mandate masks in classrooms

Posted

FLEMING ISLAND – A judge’s recent ruling doesn’t change whether the school board can enact a mask mandate, according to the school board.

More than a dozen public speakers spoke directly to the school board during its routine Sept. 2 meeting to either ask to mandate masks or applaud the lack of a requirement currently in the Clay County School District. It seemed speakers thought the school board might be voting on an item related to a mask mandate, but such an item was never on the agenda.

“We got a letter from the Chancellor of Education,” school board chair Mary Bolla said. “The mask mandate, or family choice [over whether or not a student needs to wear a mask], is still a law and we have to follow the law. We are following the law. Whether we agree with the law or not is not up to us. The notes made by the judge aren’t [official] and it’s not, ‘everything is off the board.’ That’s just not the case. We are still following the law.”

Many speakers appeared during the meeting last week after Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper ruled the governor exceeded his authority when he threatened districts that imposed a mandate with a cut in educational funding. DeSantis has appealed Cooper’s ruling. The school board said Thursday night the ruling was not made official and is still being processed – likely a reference to DeSantis’ appeal – and for the time being, there would be no changes to it current policy: masks are not required but they are highly recommended and encouraged.

About half of the public speakers Thursday night spoke in favor of a mandate.

“It is not unreasonable to ensure and enforce a mandate that protects and slows the spread of an airborne virus,” teacher Chris Trahan said. “It’s common sense. Our individual rights have limits. I do not have the right to endanger another person. That is where the line is. The minute my actions endanger another person, I have stepped beyond the shield of my individual rights.”

Trahan said relying on social distancing and sanitization isn’t enough. He said a student without a mask publicly announced in class they couldn’t smell or taste anything – both symptoms of COVID-19. He said the student had already attended two other classes that day. He sent that student to the nurse’s office according to protocol. However, that student was without a mask and back in school the next day.

“Without an enforceable mask mandate, this is a ticking time bomb,” Trahan said. “The fact that this is a discussion of whether or not we should enact policies rather than what policies we should enact versus how we should enact them, is morally bankrupt.”

Orange Park town council member John Hauber spoke in favor of the district’s current policy.

“I support not having a mask mandate because it affects our children and the development of our children,” Hauber said. “It affects them psychologically and developmentally … in addition to that, it also has a factor of when they’re in classes, they’re simply not focused on what they need to be focused on. They’re playing with their mask or itching their face...by [doing all of this], these students lack an understanding of what’s going on with them in terms of the education process. They lose their attention span.”

Despite the discussion, school board members each reiterated their stance on masks, while asking Superintendent David Broskie what more can be done.

None of the school board members said they were in favor of a mask mandate, but Janice Kerekes, Tina Bullock and Bolla all said they wear masks and believe that they work. Ashley Gilhousen and Beth Clark said they wouldn’t be in favor of a mask mandate. Despite the different feelings, the board reiterated it cares deeply about the wellbeing of Clay County students.

With their hands still tied by DeSantis’ order, the board is not apt to discuss the mandate. Instead, they pressed Broskie with further ensuring sanitation, social distancing and other safe practices were being enacted and enforced in schools.

“Would I say every school does everything perfect every day? The answer is unequivocally no and that expectation is too high,” Broskie said. “Could some schools step it up? Absolutely. If you did the percentage of what’s going right, it’s about 98% I’d say.”

Clay County residents are free to use three minutes to discuss anything they’d like at all meetings, but until official wording around DeSantis’ order is finalized, the school board isn’t expected to change its mask policy. It’s unclear if the board would vote in favor of a mandate even if it was allowed.

For now, the school board moves forward with a 2021-22 school year budget to set in meetings this month.

 

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