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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 2 weeks ago

Oakland adopts mask opt-out option for town charter school

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The change comes after Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo issued new rules giving parents the power to choose.
by: Amy Quesinberry Community Editor

A discussion about the latest Orange County Department of Health ruling and students wearing masks at Oakland Avenue Charter School became intense at the Sept. 28 Oakland Town Commission meeting.

The commission was tasked with making a decision on the mask mandate at the school following the new Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo’s emergency rule giving parents or legal guardians sole discretion regarding their children wearing masks in school.

The emergency rule was effective immediately and covered both quarantine protocols and facial coverings.

Previously, Oakland officials held an emergency meeting Aug. 30 and voted to require masks following a decision made by Orange County Public Schools. Prior to that decision, the commission had approved a policy July 27 that made masks voluntary at OACS. About 55% of the parents opted out of their children wearing masks.

The school has had nearly 400 quarantines since the beginning of the year, Town Manager Steve Koontz said, and as of Sept. 24, there was just one active quarantine.

“What I’m seeing is we’ve got a staff that’s done an incredible job at the school,” he said. “Our numbers are down. … we’re in a very good position to have this discussion tonight.Top of Form

“I know there is conflicting information,” he said. “The CDC does recommend universally for indoor masking in the schools. … But we do have the state of Florida and surgeon general with an emergency order with a very clear direction on the masking point.

Commissioner Mike Satterfield chastised OCPS for “picking and choosing what part of the law they obey” and said the commission needs to decide if it is “going to follow the law.”

“Are you saying OCPS is breaking the law?” Commissioner Sal Ramos asked.

“Yes, so we have to decide whether we want to break the law along with them,” Satterfield said.

Assistant Town Attorney Stephanie Velo said if the town maintains its mask mandate at OACS, it is not obeying the law. She added that when the commission held its emergency meeting Aug. 30, the law was being litigated so the town wasn’t in violation at that time.

“In the course of about two-and-a-half weeks, we were compliant and then not compliant and then compliant,” Koontz said.

“No matter which side of the rule we’re on, we all want what’s best for the kids,” Satterfield said.Bottom of Form

Mayor Kathy Stark opened the meeting to comments, and many parents took their turn at the podium to state their opinions for or against masks. Several spoke virtually.

“Most of the teachers are against the masks,” James Avila said. “Their biggest challenge is making sure the kids go home with the right masks at the end of the day. The kids who want to wear a mask — they’re allowed to make their choice. You’re limiting our choice.”

Another parent, Terry Fletcher, gave the commission 47 studies he said proved masks are ineffective and said the commission is violating multiple statutes and executive orders, as well as the Nuremberg Code and the OACS dress code.

“If you’re not going to follow the law, then we’re not either,” he said. “We’re going to send our kids to school and say, ‘Screw your laws.’ I don’t understand this whole stance.

“If you go ahead and go through with this, I’m telling you, I’m going to file suit, and I’m going to get 55% of the school to follow me,” Fletcher said. “I’m done playing this game. … We’re fed up with this, we’re tired of this. Unmask our kids. You are abusing our children. You are suffocating them, and we’ve had enough of it.”

“We cannot have a policy that harms a child,” Flavio Quintela said. “It’s the law; we have to abide (by) it. If you guys want to challenge it, let’s do it in court, not with our kids.”

Natalie Poston said the parents who are in favor of masks “got what they wanted” and the parents who are against masks are asking for a choice.

“One hundred percent of the parents in this room are anti-mask,” Poston said.

However, not all parents advocated for removing the mandate.

“One hundred percent of the parents in the room are anti-mask, and there’s a reason for that,” Ana Rodrigues said via Zoom. “No parents that really are pro-mask want to be in a closed room when there’s an option to watch it online, a safe option. So, there are lots of parents who are pro mask. They aren’t in the room because the best option is to not be in the room.”

“Mayor Stark and the commissioners who voted to protect our kids at the emergency meeting, I am very grateful,” Heather Beiler said. “It’s a peace you’ve given me as a parent; as a mother, it’s a gift. Protecting my kids is really all I can ask of my government.

“For the first time in history, we’re now looking at parents to be public health experts,” Beiler said. “Sure, we know our kids best, but if we’re going to teach science at the school, we sure should practice it. It’s never been easy to stand up for what’s right, and that’s what we’re asking you to … continue to do.”

“We know for a fact that masks are damaging physically, psychologically, academically and socially,” Dr. Kate Ionelli said. “We know or a fact that a majority of OACS parents want an opted option. If you continue to vote for a non-opt-out option, know this is not in the best interest of the majority of the children and the families and we can only assume this is political based. … Why are we allowing children to be sacrificed when we know that masks are damaging?”

“We are stepping up respectfully at this moment to say stop, please stop breaking the law that you are acknowledging is in place,” Christopher Diaz said. “This should be an opt-out that is immediate. If you want to wear a mask, by all means, do so. I’m not harping on you for choosing to wear a mask. Do not push back on us for choosing not to.”

The Town Commission considered four options: Do nothing, which keeps both the mask and quarantine rules currently in place at the school; accept both the new mask and quarantine orders; keep only the mask mandate currently in place at the school; or lift the mask mandate but maintain the school’s current quarantine policy.

“If you want to avoid violating the agency rule at all, then the option would be to adopt their policies,” Velo said. “We would have a parental opt-out for the mask mandate and we would follow the quarantine procedures set forth.”

Satterfield, who voted against the mask mandate during the town’s emergency meeting, made a motion to follow the emergency rule immediately and allow Koontz and OACS Principal Pam Dwyer until the end of the week to make a policy for teachers and staff at the school to follow.

The motion was seconded by Ramos, who said he was saddened by residents’ accusations that the elected officials are politicizing their decision.

“This is not political, this is about the children — and I’m tired of fighting about it,” Mayor Stark said.

“I don’t believe it’s at all political,” Satterfield said. “We’re just on opposite sides of this. … No one’s intentionally doing something that’s going to hurt the kids.”

“As a healthcare professional for over 28 years, I’m not going to fight people,” Commissioner Joseph McMullen said. “I’m following the law. I’m a pharmacist, and I look at pharmacy data every day, and I see COVID data that affects people every day. It’s not political, it’s about what I’ve seen as a healthcare professional. But at the end of the day, it’s about following the law.”

The commission voted unanimously to follow the DOH emergency rule, and opt-out forms were sent home with students last week.

 

IN OTHER NEWS

• The Town Commission passed the final public hearing for the Fiscal Year 2021-22 budget, set at $27,762,534 with a millage rate of 6.40.

• The commission passed several resolutions pertaining to eligible funding in the amount of $1,564,166 as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, to be used for water and wastewater infrastructure; and an amendment to the defined contribution retirement plan for police officers.

• Mayor Kathy Stark proclaimed Oct. 15, 2021, as Blind Americans Equality Day and October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

• Town Manager Steve Koontz introduced Naureen O’Neale, the town’s new human resources director.

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Amy Quesinberry is the community editor of the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. She was born and raised in Winter Garden, grew up reading the community newspaper and has been employed there as a writer, photographer and editor since 1990....

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