WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The School District of Palm Beach County is going back to masks.
Interim Palm Beach County Superintendent Mike Burke announced Saturday that facial coverings will be mandatory inside schools and buses for all students, unless the student's parent or guardian chooses to opt out of the requirement.
Burke said the requirement is effective immediately for students, staff and visitors.
The announcement comes a day after Florida's State Board of Education and the Florida Department of Health announced emergency rules for the 2021-22 school year.
"Parents and guardians, I have heard your passionate pleas on both sides of this debate during school board meetings," Burke said in a statement. "I have also read your messages via email. I have considered all of your input. However, I must make decisions that safeguard the health and well-being of our students and staff."
During a back-to-school news conference Thursday, Burke said he had hoped it would be left up to districts to decide how to handle masks in schools, but he said that changed with Gov. Ron DeSantis' July 30 executive order that gave parents the choice to decide.
That prompted Burke to change the district's language to read that masks were "strongly encouraged," though it stopped short of requiring them.
Those parents or guardians who wish to opt out of the requirement must send a signed note to the school informing their child's first-period teacher of the decision.
Employees of the district and visitors do not have the option to opt out.
Burke said he will revisit the mask requirement every 30 days and adjust accordingly.
Palm Beach County parents weighed in after learning about the change. Stacey Stout is a pediatrician with school-aged children.
"I was almost leaping with joy on how happy I was," Stout said.
She said her office is seeing a significant increase in COVID-19 cases among children, from about 5% of her cases to 30% as of Saturday. It's why she supports the mask requirement.
"I think it's very important for these kids to be in school in-person learning, and my fear is that if we are not masking in school, then in a few weeks, we're going to see an increase in cases of kids not being able to attend school," Stout said.
The district's COVID-19 policy change comes just days before the start of the new school year.
"I am honestly not surprised," Angelique Contreras, who is opposed to the mask mandate, said. "We kind of figured that this was where they were going to lead to."
Contreras drafted an opt-out letter that parents can use after learning Burke gave that option for parents if they want their child not to wear a mask while in school.
I spoke to a parent against the mask mandate and has drafted a letter for parents to use if they want their child to opt out of the mandate. More later tonight on @WPTV @FOX29WFLX https://t.co/M5XnCtBSgC pic.twitter.com/CNBiHPLiMd— JOSH NAVARRO (@JoshNavarroTV) August 7, 2021
Contreras said her position is more about the parental freedom to make choices for their children.
"In no way am I telling other parents that want their children to wear masks to not wear masks," she said. "I think it's important for kids to have that option."
Burke's complete statement is as follows:
"Parents, Guardians and Staff:
As you may be aware, the COVID-19 infection rate in Palm Beach County has been fluid, with a rapid rise in confirmed cases and hospitalizations over the past few days.
On August 4, when I made the announcement that facial coverings for students and staff would be strongly encouraged but not mandatory, that decision was based on the governor's executive order prohibiting our school district from enforcing a student facial covering requirement.
As you may know, two major decisions, which impact Florida school districts, were made yesterday at the state level. The Florida Board of Education (FLDOE) adopted emergency rules that impact the opening of our schools, specifically student attendance and ensuring that homework will be provided to students who are under quarantine.
Additionally, the Florida Department of Health (FLDOH) also adopted an emergency rule [r20.rs6.net] that was signed by the Florida surgeon general mandating that parents must be given an opt-out choice if facial coverings are required by a school district. FLDOH has also added clarity regarding the quarantining of COVID-19 positive students.
Parents and guardians, I have heard your passionate pleas on both sides of this debate during school board meetings. I have also read your messages via email. I have considered all of your input. However, I must make decisions that safeguard the health and well-being of our students and staff.
In determining how best to accomplish that, I have consulted with members of the local and national medical community, I have considered the guidance from local pediatricians who are extremely concerned about the health of our children, and I have discussed this critical decision with our school board members.
After careful thought, I am exercising my authority as superintendent to amend the district’s COVID-19 policies.
This means, effective immediately, I am requiring facial coverings inside schools and on buses for all students attending Palm Beach County district-operated schools, unless the student’s parent/guardian chooses to opt-out of this requirement. In order to opt out, parents who do not want their student wearing a facial covering must send a signed note to the school informing the child’s first-period teacher of this decision.
Additionally, effectively immediately, all district staff will be required to wear a facial covering indoors and on district transportation with no option of opting out.
Visitors are also required to wear a facial covering while inside, on district property.
As a school district, we will continue to work closely with the medical community to monitor the COVID-19 infection rate and level of transmission throughout our community. As the landscape of the pandemic is continually changing, I will revisit the facial covering requirement every 30 days and adjust accordingly.
Please know the school district remains committed to many other layers of COVID-19 transmission mitigation protocol which were also in place last year. We will do whatever we possibly can to provide your children and our staff with a safe learning environment.
Finally, parents and guardians, please keep your children home when they are ill. We must all work together to keep our community safe.
Michael J. Burke