WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — It will be several weeks at the earliest before the School District of Palm Beach County's universal and controversial face mask mandate for students can be relaxed, officials announced Wednesday evening.
Education and health leaders presented school board members with a series of metrics that are being used to determine when facial coverings can eventually become optional for students and staff members.
Keith Oswald, the school district's chief of equity and wellness, said masks will be voluntary once all of the following conditions are met:
- The COVID-19 vaccine is available to children 5 to 11 years old, allowing parents the choice to vaccinate their kids
- Palm Beach County's average new cases per week per 100,000 people reaches a "moderate" level of community transmission
- The weekly COVID-19 positivity rate hits a "moderate" level
- Both indicators for community transmission are maintained at "moderate" level for at least four weeks
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, Palm Beach County's positivity rate was 6.5% during the week of Sept. 24 to 30. During that same time, the county averaged 162 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. That's down sharply from mid-August, when the county averaged 622 cases per 100,000 people.
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said the county currently has a "high" level of community transmission.
Superintendent Mike Burke told WPTV his goal is for the county to reach a "moderate" level of transmission, for there to be fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people, and for the positivity rate to fall below 8%.
"We’ll have to see sustained improvement and hit those metrics and hit that target and maintain it for two weeks," Burke said. "Then we’ll feel safe about relaxing the measures."
INTERVIEW WITH SUPERINTENDENT:
Oswald cautioned Wednesday evening that even if Palm Beach County public schools are able to return to optional face masks, it may not be a permanent change.
If any of the community transmission indicators reach a "substantial" or "high" level for two weeks, a universal mask mandate with no opt-out would go back in place.
"We have seen over time a number of spikes over this pandemic," Oswald said.
WATCH SCHOOL BOARD MEETING:
Palm Beach County School Board members on Wednesday approved updated COVID-19 protocols that give Burke the power to issue health directives — like facial covering requirements — after taking into account "local health conditions and transmission risk."
Burke told WPTV it's "impossible" to provide a specific time frame for when masks will once again be voluntary for Palm Beach County public school students.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
Currently, the School District of Palm Beach County is requiring all K-12 students to wear facial coverings inside school buildings and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out. The only exceptions are for children with certain medical conditions.
In issuing that mandate, the school district has directly violated a Florida Department of Health emergency order which gives parents the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
The Florida Board of Education will meet Thursday to determine if Palm Beach County and at least nine other public school districts should face financial penalties for breaking state law.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran recommended that board members withhold state funds from the School District of Palm Beach County "in an amount equal to 1/12 of all school board members' salaries, as well as withholding state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds awarded to the SDPBC for its noncompliance."
Burke said that equates to at least $27,000 a month in state funding that could be withheld from the school district.
The superintendent will be given five minutes to speak at Thursday's Florida Board of Education meeting to defend the school district's COVID-19 policies. He added the district is prepared to take a financial hit.
"That’s not a huge amount of money considering our budget is $4 billion. But we can withstand that for a while and then hopefully, ultimately, we will prevail in this matter," Burke said. "We want to be able to explain to the state board why we did what we felt was right in the interest of safety and how we made those decisions, and also remind them of what we feel is our responsibility, our statutory responsibility under the Constitution, to keep people safe here in Palm Beach County."
There have been 6,139 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the School District of Palm Beach County since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, including 5,299 students and 840 employees.