Sarasota County school board passes 90-day mask mandate for students

Sarasota County

SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) – The Sarasota County School Board has passed a 90-day mask mandate for students with no parental opt-out amid rising COVID-19 cases.

The mandate will be removed if the positivity rate in the county drops below 8% for 3 days, the mandate will end. The current positivity rate in the county is more than 23% as of Friday.

Sarasota County is currently feeling the stress of the pandemic, with 62 staff members and 247 students currently positive or being contact traced for COVID-19.

The policy passed by the board, which will impact roughly 44,000 students, will go into effect on Aug. 23 and will be fully implemented by Aug. 30.

Sarasota becomes the sixth school district to go against Gov. DeSantis mask mandate order.

The school board had discussed three potential options for mask-wearing in schools prior to coming to their decision:

  • Option 1: For 30 days, if passed, all students must wear a medical grade or COVID-style mask while at school unless a parent informs the school district of their intent to opt out. Children under 12 would be required to wear masks for the next 90 days unless parents opt them out.
  • Option 2: For 30 days, if passed, all employees, visitors, and vendors must wear either a medical grade or COVID-style mask while at school. All employees who are not vaccinated must wear either a medical grade or COVID-style mask while at school for the next 90 days.
  • Option 3: For 90 days, if passed, each student, employee, visitor, and vendor must wear a medical grade or COVID-style mask while at school, while on school property. The only exception would be a medical note opt-out.

“Whatever you choose to vote upon and go with, we are going to execute that plan. Definitely going to execute that plan. I just want to make sure that we are careful not to break the law,” Asplen told the school board members.

“I am not voting on win or lose today. I’m not voting as a co-parent, a medical professional or lawyer. I’m voting as a school board member that has taken an oath of office. In that oath, I must oversee and provide a safe learning environment. I must oversee and provide the best education possible,” Board Member Tom Edwards said.

The emergency meeting is currently in public comment, allowing parents and community members to express their concerns and opinions on the options at hand.

Before public comment got underway, tensions rose, causing the board to go into an unexpected and unplanned recess.

In hopes of providing the board context before a decision is made, County Epidemiologist Michael Drennon shared a few pieces of data on where the county currently stands with regard to the pandemic.

Drennon said Friday’s positivity rate, alone, stood at 23.06%. The average positivity rate for the past 14 days is 15.41%. The county is averaging 370 cases per day, more than the average seen during the previous peak of the pandemic in December/January. At the beginning of the year, the county was averaging 200 to 250 cases per day, according to Drennon.

Earlier this week, Hillsborough County Public Schools voted 5-2 to change its policy and mandate masks for all students and staff, which is similar to Option 3 listed above. The 30-day mandate does include a limited medical exemption opt-out that parents could request.

The main concern Hillsborough County school board members discussed before enacting the new mandate, and one already mentioned in the Sarasota County meeting, is the financial implications the district could face for violating the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights.

The bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 29, provides guardians the right to make decisions on their child(ren)’s education, upbringing, and health care, according to the Florida House of Representatives.

Superintendent Asplen assured parents the board’s decision on Friday would not be based on the consequences they could face from the state if Option 3 is voted for.

“I want everyone to know cause I’ve already received many, many emails about the money and the salary. It’s not about that. It’s not about losing the salaries, at least for me it’s not. I don’t think (for) our board it is. It’s about honoring our oath to not break the law,” he said.

This is a developing news story and will be updated with the latest information as it becomes available.

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