WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a matter of days, the School District of Palm Beach County's universal and sweeping mask mandate for students could be scaled back, with parents once again having the ability to opt their child out of wearing a facial covering in school.
Superintendent Mike Burke on Wednesday told school board members it's his "full intent" to reinstate the parental opt-out starting on Monday, Nov. 15.
However, for that to happen, Palm Beach County must first reach a "moderate" level of community COVID-19 transmission — meaning fewer than 50 new cases per 100,000 people — and maintain that for two weeks.
During the week of Oct. 22 to 28, there were 59 cases per 100,000 people, which puts Palm Beach County in a "substantial" level of virus spread.
However, Burke said he's confident the county will drop below 50 new cases when this week's COVID-19 report from the Florida Department of Health is released on Friday.
"We are anxious to get back to as much normalcy as possible," Burke said. "I understand that the community has worked with us. People want to have answers, they want to know what to plan for."
The School District of Palm Beach County currently requires 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 students with certain medical conditions.
The controversial mandate — which went into effect on Aug. 23 — came during a volatile time when Palm Beach County was averaging 622 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, and the county's coronavirus positivity rate was 17.9%.
Since then, it's dropped sharply and significantly to just 3% as of Oct. 28.
"We are gonna continue to monitor the health conditions," Burke said. "If there is a dramatic, unforeseen turn of events in the next two weeks, I may have to once again rescind this intent. But I don't think that's likely."
Burke said that starting on Nov. 15, parents who had previously submitted a facial covering opt-out note for their child will have those notes honored.
Families who now wish to opt their child out can submit a note to your student's school, stating your desire for your child to be maskless.
For now, Burke said school district employees will still be required to wear masks. However, he said he's going to work with union leaders to establish what the new facial covering protocols will look like for staff members.
"We are still strongly encouraging families, children, employees to wear a mask or face covering. We believe it is a valuable took to mitigate the spread," Burke said.
Several school board members, including Vice Chair Karen Brill, expressed interest in simply making masks optional without the need for parents to submit an opt-out note, saying it may be difficult for school administrators to keep track of all the children with those notes.
"My vision of optional is like what happens when you go into a store these days. You can put on your mask or not put on your mask," Brill said. "I'm really not looking for students to have to bring a note in to opt out."
"It makes it a burden for the schools," said School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri. "If you have half the district opting out and the other half doesn't, somebody's got to keep track of that. And what's the point?"
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
Palm Beach County's school mask mandate directly violated a Florida Department of Health emergency rule which gives parents and guardians the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
However, it doesn't appear the School District of Palm Beach County has faced any financial penalties for breaking that state directive.