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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2021 2 months ago

OCPS makes masks optional for 2021-22 school year

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The Orange County School Board voted 6-1 to revise the district’s face-covering policy for the 2021-22 school year.
by: Danielle Hendrix Associate Editor

With the 2021-22 school year just a few weeks away, Orange County Public Schools has decided to make face masks optional moving forward.

School Board members voted 6-1 July 13 in favor of the new revision to Policy EBBA — Disease Prevention; Face Coverings. Students, employees, visitors, vendors and any other person can voluntarily wear a face mask at their discretion, but they will not be mandatory.

Accepted face coverings include commercially produced and disposable masks, cloth face coverings, clear face coverings and face shields.

The revised policy also gives the superintendent authorization to implement face-covering requirements should the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other government entities issue updated guidance that mandates more restrictive masking requirements.

“I want to reassure the general public that nothing in this new policy prohibits the School Board from taking any emergency action should they have a need to in the future,” Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins said. “Additionally, the provisions for the superintendent are limited to mandates from external resources — that is mandates, not recommendations. Thirdly, we will certainly continue to monitor the situation over the next fur weeks with Dr. (Raul) Pino and our health department, as well as our own Mayor (Jerry) Demings. 

“We also have the ability … to add a statement on behalf of the board and in light of the CDC guidance: ‘The School Board of OCPS does recommend that parents of children not vaccinated for COVID consider having their child use a face covering at school and on the bus,’” Jenkins said.

There were mixed opinions from speakers at the School Board meeting. Wesley Hodge, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, spoke in favor of masks. 

“I want to reassure the general public that nothing in this new policy prohibits the School Board from taking any emergency action should they have a need to in the future.” — Dr. Barbara Jenkins, OCPS Superintendent

“I actually would like to see a mandatory mask update, but I believe that this optional one is at least a step in the right direction,” Hodge said. “This is one of the tools we have to protect ourselves from a disease that is spreading around the globe. Doctors and nurses have been wearing these for many, many years with no ill effects to protect their patients. We need to do this temporarily to protect ourselves from a global pandemic.”

Others supported making masks optional. Parent Misty Griffin spoke of one of her son’s troubles with asthma, which was exacerbated by the mask requirement. Griffin added that when the mask mandate was implemented, not much was known about COVID-19.

“We know that children are at low risk,” Griffin said. “We know that those who are at risk are able to get a vaccination if they choose. We know that a teacher doesn’t need to be afraid of her students, and we know doctors know the proper treatment for the virus and are doing so in our local hospitals. We know that the hospitals are nowhere near reaching capacity, and the treatment is readily available. We know that the masks do not work to stop the spread of the virus, and we know that damage is being done to students who do not need to or cannot wear a mask.”

School Board Member Angie Gallo said she is nervous about the COVID-19 Delta variant and what it means for the community. However, she said, there is evidence to support each side of the debate over face coverings.

“Our surrounding area — including the mayor — who is concerned about what’s going on in their community recommended that those wear masks in small spaces indoors if you cannot be socially distanced,” Gallo said. “It was a recommendation — it was not a mandate. … It has to be left up to those individuals to decide what is best for them and their family and their child, and I respect that.”

School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs also said she was worried about the Delta variant and what could transpire in the weeks leading up to the new school year. However, she agreed it was time to make masks optional with reassurance that stricter requirements could be implemented again if necessary.

“At this point … I agree that we should be moving forward with the path of optional, but I also think it’s extremely important that we be able to change (that) — even if that means we’re changing between now and the start of the school year, depending on what happens with the Delta variant,” Jacobs said. “If I believe in my heart of hearts that a decision I’ve made is putting our children at significant risk and they’d be safer with masks, then I will be back here advocating for that.”

Danielle Hendrix is the Associate Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. She is a 2015 graduate of the University of Central Florida, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a minor in world comparative studies. ...

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