Manatee School Board approves mask mandate with opt-out option

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Manatee County School Board approved a motion directing Superintendent Cynthia Saunders to implement a temporary mask mandate for students with the ability to opt out.

The school district saw 179 positive COVID-19 cases between students and staff on the first four days of school last week. That’s compared to a total of 17 positive cases in the first full week of school in August 2020.

The board voted 3 to 2 in favor of implementing a mask mandate at an emergency meeting Monday. Board members Mary Foreman, Charlie Kennedy and Rev. James Golden were in support of the motion, while Chat Choate and Gina Messenger voted against it.

“Creating a mandate with an opt out does not change how this is gonna work in our schools,” said Messenger. “It is just wording and that wording does not change what a parent can do when they send their child to school,” she said.

Board Chair Charlie Kennedy is hopeful the change in policy will help slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant in schools.

“Counties that are doing the mandate with the opt out are seeing higher levels of mask-wearing and the board majority felt that would be a good directive to at least try and see if we get better mask-wearing rates than we had the first week of school,” said Kennedy.

The mask mandate will be in place until Aug. 25. School board members will decide whether or not to extend the mandate at one of their upcoming meetings.

More than 40 people came forward to speak during public comments, with the majority voicing support for a mask mandate.

“It is something that might help me rest easier at night or in the morning when I am putting my kids on a school bus,” said Dave Dean. “I am still not satisfied, but this is a little something and it looks like at least three of the board members are going to do the right thing and try to do something to stem this avalanche of delta we have spreading throughout the county,” he continued.

Parents in opposition of the mandate feel the decision to mask up or not should be left up to parents, not the district.

Manatee County resident, Andra Griffin feels the change is just a ‘word game’.

“This idea that this mandatory mask mandate with opt out is going to somehow miraculously make people wear masks after a year and a half.. I am sorry, people have made up their mind. They are either for masks or they are against masks, they are either going to send their kids to school with masks or they are not,” said Griffin. “At this point, the mind is made up. You are not going to manipulate with words them out of either putting masks on or taking masks off,” she continued.

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