Mask debate takes spotlight at Sarasota schools meeting


SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – With COVID-19 cases surging in Florida just days before the new school year, some parents told the Sarasota County School Board Tuesday night they want the same health and safety precautions as last year.

The district plans to welcome back more than 43,000 students on Aug. 10 with an optional face mask policy approved by board members on July 27.

“Our goal is to open the school year as normally as possible,” Sarasota Schools spokesperson Kelsey Whealy said in an email to 8 On Your Side.

Kelli Maldonado said she felt safe sending her to school a year ago for kindergarten and he never had to quarantine once.

“Did he ever complain to mom about wearing the mask?” 8 On Your Side asked her.

“He never complained about it once,” she said. “It was never a big deal at all.”

Maldonado spoke at Tuesday’s meeting because she is more concerned now about her child returning to the classroom.

“Let’s really not use our children as Guinea pigs and see what happens when we start the school year,” Maldonado said. “Let’s take what was working last year.”

During her public comment, she suggested having some masked and unmasked classrooms.

“I hope they consider it as an option,” Maldonado said. “I know its something they can’t require across the board.”

Sarasota Schools plan to follow other COVID-19 safety recommendations from the local Department of Health.

“We are still being advised by the local Department of Health to implement social distancing when possible,” Whealy said in her email. “Social distancing cannot be guaranteed and is dependent on the number of students and staff in any location at a given time. We will continue to follow DOH guidelines utilizing their quarantine procedures. Classrooms, as well as high traffic areas and touchpoints, will continue to be cleaned regularly, as they were throughout this past year.”

Rules for volunteers entering schools do not sit well with grandmother and substitute teacher, Debbie Mason.

“One teacher in a classroom of 20 to 30 kids can’t do everything,” she said. “I think it’s very restrictive to mandate that people who are volunteering, whether they’re parents or family members, would have to be tested for COVID before they come in.”

Mason said she supports the district’s optional mask policy, which is in line with executive order Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last Friday that focused on parents’ choice and threatened to withhold funding from districts with mandatory mask policies.

“I don’t think we should have ever been masked,” Mason said.

On Tuesday at the White House, President Joe Biden responded to a question about whether he believed Gov. DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are making decisions that are harming their own citizens.

“I believe the results of their decisions are not good for their constituents,” President Biden said, “and it’s clear to me and most medical experts, the decisions being made like not allowing mask mandates in schools and the like are bad health policy.”

While Mason said her grandchildren in elementary school will not get vaccinated, Maldonado said she cannot wait for authorization for children younger than 12 years old. 

Doctors say most children, especially those without underlying medical conditions, will have mild cases of COVID-19. The delta variant that is rapidly spreading in Florida has been found to be much more contagious.

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