WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Face masks will be optional for Palm Beach County students next school year, Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy announced on Thursday.
In a letter to students, parents, guardians, and school district staff members, Fennoy said he made the decision because of "the downward trend in the positivity rate in Palm Beach County, the increasing availability of the COVID-19 vaccine for adults and children," as well as a recommendation from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to end mask mandates in schools.
Fennoy said facial coverings will be mandatory on school campuses and buses for the remainder of the current school year, which ends on June 18. In addition, masks will be mandatory during next month's high school graduation ceremonies, as well as during Summer School.
However, when the 2021/22 academic year begins on Aug. 10, masks will be optional.
"It is important to note that if health conditions deteriorate, and this decision is no longer viable, I reserve the authority to change course," Fennoy said in his letter. "I cannot overstate that the health and safety of our students and staff is the School Board’s top priority, and will always guide our decision-making."
Fennoy added that COVID-19 safety measures including enhanced cleaning and sanitization, the usage of MERV-13 filters for HVAC systems, social distancing when possible, and other health protocols will remain in place in schools.
Earlier on Thursday, longtime Palm Beach County School Board Marcia Andrews said face masks will be optional inside schools "very soon."
"[Fennoy] is making some changes. He's heard the board," Andrews told a group of parents. "I believe it's coming for the options of the masks very soon."
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Currently, the School District of Palm Beach County requires all students to wear facial coverings "inside District buildings, riding on school buses, and walking through open-air hallways during class changes," but not when eating and drinking while seated.
In addition, "students in grades K-12 are not required to wear facial coverings during outdoor physical education classes if maintaining social distancing of at least six feet or more is possible."
Students can also remove their masks during outdoor activities "if social distancing is maintained."
A group called "Unmask Palm Beach County Kids" has collected 7,000 signatures through an online petition, urging the school district to remove its mask mandate.
"We are going to put pressure forward and we are not going to stop until these school board members and the superintendent and these county commissioners understand who they work for, who pays their salary," said parent Jessi Melton.
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The superintendent's major decision came on the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear facial coverings indoors.
"Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic."
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In neighboring Martin County, school board members voted Wednesday night to require masks inside schools for the remainder of the academic year, which ends on May 28. After that, faccial coverings will be optional for the Summer Transition Phase starting on June 1.
In Okeechobee County, face masks are now recommended but not required inside schools.
Officials with the School District of Indian River County said they're planning to make masks optional for students next school year.
St. Lucie Public Schools has not announced any official changes to its face mask policy, but said school leaders are continuing to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic as we approach the 2021/22 academic year.
Last month, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter to school district superintendents throughout the state, urging them to eliminate their face mask mandates and instead make facial coverings optional.
Corcoran said the mandates in schools "do not impact the spread of the virus" and "serve no remaining good at this point."
Earlier this week, DeSantis vehemently argued that children should not wear face masks in school.
"These kids do not need to be wearing these masks, OK? I'm sorry, they don't," DeSantis said during a news conference in Jacksonville. "We need to be able to let them be kids and let them act normally. And that's what should be the case in the fall throughout the school year."
The governor, however, stopped short of issuing any mandates or executive orders of his own related to facial coverings in schools.
"What's our direction to the school districts and the other schools? Our direction is relatively simple. Have a normal school year," DeSantis said. "That's what we want, and that's what will happen."
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While many Palm Beach County parents are eager to see the face mask requirements eased, it appears that teachers may not feel the same way.
According to a recent survey of more than 3,100 Palm Beach County educators, 68.9% of those polled said they believe the current on-campus mask mandate should remain in effect at the start of the 2021/22 academic year.
In addition, a counter petition to keep Palm Beach County's school mask mandate in place has collected more than 2,200 signatures.
The petition urges school board members to maintain the policy, arguing that "masks should continue to be mandated for all who step on Palm Beach County school campuses until community spread of COVID is extremely low."
The T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society, a group of medical professionals based in Palm Beach Gardens, sent a letter to Fennoy on Monday, voicing the "urgent need for continued mask wearing in all public schools in Palm Beach County for students and staff."
"Attending indoor public events like school classes not only increases the risk for COVID-19 transmission between students and staff but increases the risk of spreading the infection to high-risk family members and friends," the letter said. "It is paramount to maintain facial coverings under these current conditions to prevent our youngest population, school-age children, from contracting COVID-19 infection."
Dr. Kitonga Kiminyo, an infectious disease specialist and COVID-19 Task Force Leader for the medical society, said masks should continue to be mandatory inside schools to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
"We know that there isn't much transmission of COVID within the school system," Kiminyo said. "That's because of all these things that we've been doing all along, which include the mask wearing and the social distancing."
While Kiminyo said he understands the complaints from parents who want the mandate removed, he said contracting COVID-19 is much worse than the realities of wearing masks.
"It's a lot more suffocating and a lot more difficult when you actually have COVID infection," Kiminyo said.
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