PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — In just three days, Palm Beach County students will be required to wear facial coverings inside schools and on school district transportation without the ability to opt out.
"Opt-out letters previously submitted will no longer be honored," the school district said in a news release on Friday.
The universal mask mandate, which was approved by the Palm Beach County School Board earlier this week, officially goes into effect on Monday.
The only exceptions will be for medical reasons, specifically students who are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, meaning a child has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a "major life activity" like learning.
The school district said Friday if your child requires an exemption from the mask mandate due to a documented disability, you must submit a request for an accommodation, along with a note from a licensed medical physician documenting the need for the requested accommodation, to your school’s 504 coordinator.
"My position is mandatory masks with the only exemptions being the ADA and 504. Not just the note from the pediatrician or physician. Just to add clarity," said Board Member Dr. Debra Robinson during Wednesday's school board meeting. "Cause I think if we say medical exemption, you know, somebody might bring in a note from a chiropractor."
"There are some people that can't wear masks, and we need to have that exemption in there," Vice Chair Karen Brill added.
The mandate will remain in place for 90 days, however, school board members may revise it before then. This does not affect teachers, who are already required to wear masks without the ability to opt out.
The School District of Palm Beach County said Friday that 12,194 of the 164,380 students enrolled this academic year have opted out of wearing facial coverings.
There have been 1,161 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the district since the 2021/22 academic year started on Aug. 10, including 1,025 students and 136 employees. As of Thursday, at least 4,498 students have been told to stay at home because of possible COVID-19 exposure.
Five-year-old Winnie Paul started kindergarten last week, wearing a face mask in class.
"They're happy to be with their friends. They're happy to interact with their teachers," said mother Erica Paul.
But on the second day of school, Paul said Zoe was forced to quarantine.
"Not everyone in her class was wearing a mask. She had, but a child in her class tested positive day one of school," Paul said.
"Masks, while uncomfortable for some, really do prevent infections and really do help us to be safer," said Dr. Sarrie Katz at Premier Pediatrics in Jupiter.
Katz said her office has been fielding calls from parents who are trying to get an exception note so their child doesn't have to wear a mask starting on Monday. But Katz is denying most requests and only following guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"We have given some exemptions for those children. But most children should safely be able to wear a mask and there's data to show it will protect them and their family, their teachers, their peers," Katz said.
Paul said she's happy with the change coming on Monday.
"My personal opinion is they made the right choice keeping our kids safe in schools," Paul said.
School districts in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, and Alachua counties have all enacted universal mask mandates without opt-out provisions.
Those mandates defy a highly controversial executive order issued by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 30 that gives parents the final say over whether their children should wear facial coverings in school.
The Florida Department of Education on Friday sent a warning letter to the Broward County School District and Alachua County Public Schools, saying if they don't comply with the governor's directive within 48 hours, the education department will begin the process of withholding the salaries of all school board members who approved the mask mandates.
The School District of Palm Beach County said Friday it's revised its Stay-Home Directive for students who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.
If your child is fully vaccinated (two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose series) and asymptomatic, or has had a prior COVID-19 infection (tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous 90 days and not showing symptoms), they will not be required to stay home.
Parents and guardians must provide proof of your child's vaccination status to allow them to remain at school.
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 one of the following:
- The student receives a negative COVID test and is asymptomatic
- 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
- The student has received written permission from a health care provider to return to school
The school district will notify you of the possible COVID-19 exposure and that your child needs to stay home. The Florida Department of Health should then get in touch with you for the contact tracing process to see how long your child may need to quarantine.
For more information about the School District of Palm Beach County's Stay-Home Directive, click here.