On Sept. 7, the school board, district staff, health officials and the public sat together through another tense four-hour meeting. At least three hours were devoted to a discussion about masking children in the schools: Should the parental opt-out be changed to a full-on mask mandate with only a medical opt-out? Should the district go against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent executive order protecting a parent’s right to decide about masks?
In the end, the school board upheld the same mask mandate with a parental opt-out, to be revisited in two weeks. However, the vote was four members for and one member against this mandate. Board member Sue Woltanski, concerned about the still high COVID numbers, pushed for a medical opt-out only.
The meeting began with an update on COVID numbers by Bob Eadie, administrator for the Monroe County Department of Health.
“To my knowledge there have been no confirmed pediatric hospitalizations, no confirmed pediatric deaths in Monroe county,” he said.
He said that from Aug. 1 till Sept. 7, Miami-Dade had tested 11,182 kids in the 5- to 14-year-old age group, and 12 percent of those tests were positive. In Monroe County during that same period, 2,200 children in that age group were tested, and 231 were positive, making Monroe County’s ratio for positivity 10.5 percent.
He added that positive test numbers for Covid are going down, not up, though the trend could be a pause before another spike.
Woltanski repeatedly expressed her concern about the transmission of the virus in Monroe County and pressed for masking with medical-opt out only.
“The community is rocked by losing our county commissioner,” she said. “I know of six restaurants where the owners have died from Covid. … It’s an economic problem when the adults in the community, the pillars in our community, start dying. The county commissioners have put in a mask mandate in all their buildings. The city of Key West has put in a mask mandate in all its buildings. I believe the village of Islamorada has as well … at this point we’re the governing body that is not masking.”
“Because for us we’d be breaking the law,” said Andy Griffiths, board vice chair.
Board member Bobby Highsmith pointed out that 90 percent of students are wearing masks.
“If only 10 percent of the kids in the classroom are not wearing masks then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Woltanski said. “But there are kids in classes where it’s 30 percent or more not wearing masks.”
“We don’t get to pick the laws we like,” Griffiths said. “We follow them all. We need to encourage better participation.”
“Currently, out of 8,465 (students), we have 1,315 opt-outs. That’s 15 percent opt-outs,” Superintendent Theresa Axford said. “In Dr. Woltanski’s defense, some classes are more heavily weighted with opt-outs.”
“We have a constitutional responsibility to provide a safe place,” Woltanski insisted.
The public had opinions as well.
“Dr. Woltanski, I have not seen where you have articulated any verifiable uptick in Covid that is related to the current mask policy,” Matt Stettner of Summerland Key said. “Respectfully, I do not believe it is her (Woltanski’s) or your decision to make in the place of the parents.”
Key West physician Dr. John Norris plugged the CDC’s recommendation for universal masking in schools for all students age 2 and up regardless of vaccination status.
“Recently, a child was sent home from school due to exposure. Both the child and the parents got symptoms,” he said. “CDC guidance should be followed. … I am concerned about the number of Covid cases of adults that are coming from our school system.”
As it has become the school board’s policy to vote on the current mask policy with parental opt-out every two weeks, the time came at the end of the meeting to finally make a decision.
Woltanski made a motion for everyone to wear facial covering indoors, with an opt-out by medical necessity only, due to “our status being extremely high.” No board member seconded her motion.
Highsmith moved to continue the existing facial covering requirement, with a parental opt-out. It was seconded by board member Mindy Conn. The motion passed, 4 to 1, with Woltanski voting against.
“I think the fact that we’ve come to a point where masks are the only thing we are talking about in relation to Covid is taking things far beyond what they should be and making it more political, rather than based on data and facts,” Conn said. “There are so many other factors besides masking that go into a great Covid policy, and I believe we are doing all of them. … We’ve got better air filtration, we’ve got sanitizing, we’ve got hand washing, we’ve got outdoor time and social distancing. There are so many things we are doing, and the only thing we talk about at meetings is masking. And that is not — in my opinion, the data doesn’t support that as the fixer of Covid.”
The masking issue will be discussed again, in two weeks.
In other news, the school board passed the final budget for the 2021-2022 school year. Keys Weekly will provide more coverage on the budget in the next issue.