WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County public schools still have a "ways to go" before the district's sweeping and controversial face mask mandate for students can be eased, Superintendent Mike Burke said Tuesday.
"I’m encouraged. We’d like to see the numbers continue to go down," Burke told WPTV journalist Stephanie Susskind. "We’d like to get to a place where we feel like it's safe to revisit our facial covering policy."
The superintendent said the School District of Palm Beach County is developing metrics with local health leaders to determine when may be a safe time to scale back on mask requirements for students and teachers.
Those metrics include looking at Palm Beach County's daily COVID-19 positivity rate, as well as the number of cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, Palm Beach County's daily positivity rate was 6.5% during the week of Sept. 24 to 30. That falls below Burke's goal of 8%.
However, during that same week, Palm Beach County averaged 162 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Burke is aiming for that number to get below 50.
"These metrics would be my guide to exercise the discretion I have within the policy, where I'm able to rescind portions of the policies if things improve," Burke said. "So I want to have these metrics as a benchmark, a criteria to make that decision."
Speaking to county commissioners on Tuesday, Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said that while the county's daily positivity rate falls into the "moderate" level of community transmission, the case count is still considered "high."
"If one is greater than the other, you take the highest one to determine your risk," Alonso said. "So therefore, Palm Beach County is in high."
Burke said his target is for the county as a whole to reach a "moderate" level of COVID-19 transmission before the school district's mask mandate can be eased to an optional policy for students.
"We still have a ways to go," Burke said. "Everyone is tired of wearing the facial covering. I get it. And we’re only doing it to keep people safe. And if we can get to a point where we feel we can relax a little bit and go back to an opt-out, we’ll be happy to get there."
WATCH SUPERINTENDENT'S INTERVIEW:
After a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases among students and staff members at the start of the 2021/22 academic year, coronavirus cases in the School District of Palm Beach County have slowed substantially.
During the first 30 days of the school year, the district had been averaging about 150 cases per day. Since then, it's only been about 65 daily.
The Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on updated COVID-19 protocols that give the superintendent the power to issue health directives — like facial covering requirements — after taking into account "local health conditions and transmission risk."
Burke on Tuesday said, at this point, it's "impossible" to provide a specific time frame for when masks will once again be voluntary for Palm Beach County public school students.
"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."
In issuing its universal mask mandate with no ability for students to opt out, the School District of Palm Beach County directly violated a state emergency order which gives parents the final say over whether their children should be masked in school.
The Florida Board of Education will meet on Thursday to determine if Palm Beach County and 10 other public school districts should face financial penalties for breaking state law.
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent board members a letter on Tuesday, recommending they 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."
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
Burke on Tuesday said a new Florida Department of Health policy — which allows students exposed to COVID-19 to avoid quarantining if they're asymptomatic — is helping to keep children in school and catch up academically after sustaining major learning losses over the last year.
"We know we were sending home a lot of kids that proved to remain healthy and there was a lot of instructional loss occurring as a result," Burke said. "So I feel like it’s helped us keep kids in school, which is our primary goal."
Burke added that since the new quarantine policy went into effect roughly two weeks ago, there haven't been any negative effects.
"You didn’t see any rapid acceleration. We continue to see the numbers come down across the board," Burke said.
As of Monday, 437 Palm Beach County students are at home because of COVID-19 exposure, according to school district figures.
"We want to respect the numbers and make wise choices and make good decisions to continue to keep everyone safe," Burke said. "But we do value that time in the classroom. So that's a priority."