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Sarasota, Hillsborough To Keep Mask Policy In Schools, For Now

Sarasota school board member Bridget Ziegler gestures a thumbs up while wearing a mask at school board meeting
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota County Schools
Said Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler: “Not that you’re responsible for the CDC’s statements but I do think they play a very substantial role in confusion and hesitancy quite frankly because it is almost as if they are talking out of both sides of their mouth."

But no vote is imminent in Hillsborough County as some parents are demanding the face-mask policies end immediately.

With just weeks to go until the end of the school year, Sarasota County public schools decided Tuesday to maintain the district’s current face-covering policy in accordance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite opposition from two of the five board members.

Meanwhile, Hillsborough County school board members said no vote is imminent, as parents who are opposed to masks demanded the school face-covering policies be ended immediately.

"The state house and the governor's house have made it clear,” said Scott Clayborn, a father in Hillsborough County, at Tuesday night’s meeting.

“The statewide mandates for COVID emergency orders are finished. What makes you think you can act unilaterally and ignore the law? You can't and you won't.”

The CDC last week said fully vaccinated people can go without masks in much of public life.

Since a COVID-19 vaccine is only approved for emergency use in those 12 and up, the federal health agency issued recommendations on May 15 that said schools should maintain their mask policies, along with social distancing, handwashing and contact tracing, for the 2020-2021 school year.

The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday echoed its support for “the continued, universal use of masks and physical distancing in schools by all individuals including students, faculty and staff through the end of the 2020-2021 school year.”

At a workshop Tuesday afternoon, Sarasota School Board members Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose spoke in favor of dropping masks in schools, despite hearing from the Sarasota County Health Department’s Michael Drennon about the CDC’s latest guidance.

“Not that you’re responsible for the CDC’s statements but I do think they play a very substantial role in confusion and hesitancy quite frankly because it is almost as if they are talking out of both sides of their mouth,” said Ziegler.

Ziegler said she would like the board to move forward with the adoption of an emergency policy and hold an emergency meeting so that parents could be notified.

Board chair Shirley Brown, along with members Jane Goodwin and Tom Edwards, disagreed.

“You know, as chair I would find it very difficult to call an emergency meeting that the public health and safety is at risk by keeping our masks,” said Brown.

Superintendent Brennan Asplen, who does not have a vote in such decisions, said he understands the desire to shed masks.

“Personally, I know I can't wait until we go optional on masks. I think most of the people in our school district can't wait for that to happen,” Asplen said.

However, he said he had consulted with area principals, who urged that the current policies stay in place for the next few weeks as schools hold tests and prepare for graduations.

“We need to be consistent and keep things the way they are for the rest of the school year, so that we don’t create a chaotic situation or even a situation that is just a disruption.”

The Sarasota board plans to work on a mask-optional policy next month, that could be voted on over the summer and would be applicable when schools reopen in the fall.

In Hillsborough, school district attorney Jim Porter said officials are following the CDC's guidance closely.

"They have not issued guidance for next year as of yet, so until that is done it is premature for the board to vote,” Porter said.

Besides, the face-covering policy is embedded in the school's reopening plan from the fall, and can't be dropped before the end of the school year, Porter added.

More meetings on masks are likely in June or July.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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