WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Despite growing concerns among medical professionals about the Delta variant of COVID-19, Palm Beach County's outgoing superintendent said Wednesday he's still anticipating a mask-optional policy for all students and staff members when the new school year starts in less than a month.
The 2021/22 academic year for the School District of Palm Beach County is slated to begin on Aug. 10 with a full return to in-classroom instruction.
Face masks will be optional inside school buildings and on school district transportation, and social distancing will be "encouraged to the extent possible."
Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy, who's resigning effective Oct. 11 to spend more time with his family, said school district officials are closely monitoring the Delta variant, which has become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S.
However, Fennoy said Wednesday he's still anticipating a mask-optional environment when school starts in four weeks.
"As of today, absolutely," Fennoy said. "The emotions around [face masks], you have people who believe in the science, people that don't believe in the science. You have people that want masks, don't."
INTERVIEW WITH FENNOY:
Those emotions regarding face coverings for children reached a climax late in the school year when dozens of parents held multiple rallies, urging the school district to both eliminate and keep its then-mask mandate.
"You're never gonna satisfy everybody," Fennoy said. "So we'll make our decisions in the best interests of students. And then families will have to make those decisions based on that."
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso said Tuesday the Delta variant, in part, is to blame for an increase in local COVID-19 cases.
Alonso said the county is averaging roughly 300 new cases per day following a "steady decrease" over the last few months. In addition, Palm Beach County's daily COVID-19 positivity rate was 6.9% on July 9, up from 3.2% on June 3. Health officials aim to keep the positivity rate below 5%.
The level of community transmission in Palm Beach County has increased from "moderate" on June 5 to "substantial" as of July 10. The next level above that is "high."
"This Delta is very, very important and we need to continue to follow it closely," Alonso said. "We are in wide community spread at this time."
However, Alonso on Tuesday did not make any recommendations regarding mandatory face coverings for students inside schools.
Instead, she highlighted how more than 614,000 children between the ages and 12 and 19 in Florida have received the COVID-19 vaccine. That age group accounts for the largest increase in vaccinations in the Sunshine State.
"That's good, because that means we've been vaccinating a lot of the kids before they get back to school," Alonso said.
The health director added the current COVID-19 vaccines are proving to be effective against the Delta variant.
"The vaccine is holding steady. The antibodies are holding steady. We will need one in the future? Probably at some point. But there's no sense starting to get boosters until it's declared," Alonso said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday once against stressed he's vehemently opposed to mask mandates in schools, telling reporters he expects a "normal school year."
"That's one thing we definitely learned. We can't get caught up in trying to make everyone happy," Fennoy said. "We just have to do what we think is best and roll with those consequences."
In addition to optional face masks, field trips and before-and-after-school programs will resume for the 2021/22 academic year in Palm Beach County, along with clubs and performances in-person at all levels. Sports will realign with the Florida High School Athletic Association schedule, and concession stands will be open at athletic events.
There are also changes to health procedures and quarantines. Fully vaccinated employees will not be sent home if exposed to COVID-19, unless they are showing symptoms.
If a student reports a positive COVID-19 test, he or she must stay home until they are symptom-free, including no fever of 100.4 degrees or higher for at least 24 hours without fever-reducing medicine.
If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracers will come in to determine if anyone else was exposed. Officials said if students and staff members have received the coronavirus vaccine, they may not need to quarantine.
Officials said distance learning is being suspended when students are forced to quarantine. Instead, they'll be given make-up work to complete.