On Aug. 24, after an almost four-hour school board meeting during which citizens passionately spoke both for and against the district’s current mask mandate — and after the county’s health department administrator abruptly announced that he no longer supports a parental opt-out — the board members unanimously voted to support its current policy: teachers, staff and children must wear masks, but parents can still sign a form to opt out.

The vote is contrary to the stance of other South Florida school districts. Miami-Dade County has a mask mandate with no opt-out at all while Broward County schools has a mask mandate with medical opt-out only.

Not only did board members feel pressure from an angry public and the health department to change the current masking policy, but Superintendent Theresa Axford also introduced some sobering statistics: the district has 105 positive COVID cases so far this year, and 290 students are on quarantine.

“Last year we had a total of 286 cases,” said Axford. “So if the cases keep up at this rate, we’re certainly going to overtake our total from last year.”

School board member Bobby Highsmith asked Bob Eadie, administrator for the Monroe County Department of Health, if he had any suggestions for changes in their current masking policy with parental opt-out.

​”If I were a school board member right now, I would give a great deal of consideration to if we want a mask mandate where everybody wears it,” he replied.

“That’s a change from what you told us last week,” responded Highsmith.

“Yes it is,” Eadie said.

Others in the room were surprised by Eadie’s change of opinion, including Axford and board member Sue Woltanski. Woltanski asked Axford if it was time to start planning a virtual schooling option.

“We are ready to pivot,” said Axford. “And we are meeting with UTM (United Teachers of Monroe) tomorrow in bargaining to virtual instruction across the district if we have to.”

Chairman John Dick expressed frustration that Monroe County has not received promised federal money that is earmarked for testing children in schools.

“Group testing to me would have far better control,” Dick said. “It tells you who’s positive and who’s not.”

“John’s correct. All that money was supposed to have been here by now,” Eadie said. “And I cannot get an answer. The only answer that I have gotten is that the Feds have not approved the reapplication that’s sitting in Atlanta.”

Islamorada mother Jamie McNew was one of more than 20 public speakers who stood up to share. She pointed out that her daughter was exposed to COVID, and she was told by the district that her child could come back to school after seven days with a negative COVID test. 

But McNew said she had trouble finding a COVID test from any health care providers in Monroe County. She finally found a test in Homestead.

“I agree with Mr. Dick,” she said. “Schools should provide testing. I was surprised the school district didn’t provide it.”

Typically, the citizen input section of the school board meeting is only allotted 30 minutes. But school board chairman John Dick said he didn’t care if the meeting was four and a half hours.

“Let them all speak,” he declared.

And speak, they did.

“If you choose to opt out, you shouldn’t be in school,” pediatrician Stanley Zuba said. “Science doesn’t include personal choice. It’s not like we’re asking everybody to wear a spacesuit, my gosh. … If children die and get sick, that’s all on you.”

“As elected officials, your job is to secure our rights, not hijack our liberties for your individual fears,” said Ginny Donaldson of Summerland Key. “Vote no on masks.”

After the board voted to uphold the current masking policy with parental opt-out, Axford cautioned that since the situation is so fluid, the district’s current policy will have to be constantly reconsidered.

“I think we need to inch along and follow what’s going on with cases and call emergency meetings as necessary,” she said.

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.