PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Palm Beach County's new superintendent of public schools said Wednesday he believes he's gone as far as he legally can with mandating face masks for students, adding that the current amount of COVID-19 cases in schools is manageable.
According to the latest numbers from the School District of Palm Beach County, nearly 10,000 of the 167,000 students enrolled this academic year have opted out of wearing facial coverings in school.
Superintendent Michael Burke told WPTV on Wednesday he wants to see what school board members have to say about removing that opt out provision before he makes any decisions.
The Florida Board of Education voted Tuesday evening to penalize school districts in Broward and Alachua counties for mandating face masks in schools without offering children the choice to opt out.
Under an emergency order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, parents have the final say over whether their children should wear masks in school.
"To this point, I've just pushed as far as we could in the way of safety and abiding by those emergency rules that you must have an opt out," Burke said.
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The School District of Palm Beach County said there have been 704 confirmed COVID-19 cases since Aug. 10, including 608 students and 96 employees.
As of Tuesday, at least 3,055 students have been told to stay home for possible COVID-19 exposure.
Burke said he believes the case count is manageable when you look at the overall size of the school district, which is the tenth-largest in the country.
"We're just working to get them back in the class as soon as we can, when they're eligible," Burke said.
The superintendent added the district is working on fine-tuning some of its procedures for children who have to stay home and quarantine, making sure that if a student is vaccinated, he or she can go right back into the classroom immediately.
Burke said he held an emergency meeting with school principals on Tuesday to go over some of those logistics.
"There are some nuances to work through, particularly with the treatment of vaccinated students," Burke said. "If students are vaccinated with no symptoms, we're able to get them right back into class. So that’s a good incentive for our families to consider."
Burke said the biggest challenge he sees for the school year is staffing.
"COVID is impacting our ability to keep people in our schools," Burke said. "We're losing bus drivers to quarantine and COVID cases. We have to send home teachers on occasion. So just keeping enough manpower to keep this big district running every day. To me that will be the greatest challenge."
The Palm Beach County School Board is scheduled to meet Wednesday at 5 p.m. for the first time since the new school year began on Aug. 10.
Board members are set to approve a set of policies for students and employees that outline COVID-19 protocols for the district. You can read more about them by clicking here.
Among the items being voted on Wednesday is a new policy for keeping students home from school.
Under the proposed changes, if a student is exposed to a COVID-positive case and they are asymptomatic, they can return to school after receiving a negative COVID-19 test at least four days after the date of exposure, or if the student is asymptomatic and seven days have passed since the date of exposure.
If a student tests positive for COVID-19 or is symptomatic following exposure to an infected individual, they can return to school after the student receives a negative COVID test and is asymptomatic, or 10 days have passed since the symptom onset or the positive test result, the student has had no fever for 24 hours, and the student's other symptoms are improving, or the student has received written permission from a health care provider to return to school.
"I'm still confident that having your student on our campus is the best place for them," Burke said. "I think you're better off, academically and social emotionally, with a kid in our buildings."
St. Lucie Public Schools said there have been 188 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the first day of school on Aug. 10, including 132 students and 56 employees.
The Martin County School District has had 56 cases, the School District of Indian River County has had 58 cases, and the Okeechobee County School District has had 45 cases during the 2021/22 academic year.