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Local News

Parents Make Case For A Mask Mandate In Okaloosa Schools — Again

Okaloosa County School District
Okaloosa County School District
Parent Leslie Fuller speaks at the Okaloosa County School Board meeting Monday night.

More than a dozen parents addressed the Okaloosa County School Board Monday evening with concerns about the COVID surge in the district. Most asked the board to consider a mask policy to help protect children from the highly infectious Delta variant.

No action was taken by the board after about two hours of public comments.

Josh Ashley is a father of a kindergartener and first-grader. He spoke about being notified thar one of his daughter’s teachers was out for week because of COVID and that students would be split up among classrooms.

“There’s almost no mitigation (against the virus),” he said. “One week ago, our children had to be quarantined because of exposure. I was trying to schedule a (COVID) test but there was nothing available locally. It is clear you don’t really care how many times I have to shove Q Tips deep into my kids’ nasal cavities.”

Since the district started school Aug. 10, there have been more than 1,500 reported COVID cases of students. But concerns are that the number underrepresents the spread.

Last week, the president of the teachers union, Jordan Appleberg, expressed concerns about the district’s reporting to the board, saying the dashboard wasn’t up to date.

“We have schools that are saying there’s zero cases for staff and you have five staff that are currently out and they’re (COVID) positive,” she said. “And it’s happening because we don’t have any testing sites.”

Appleberg said she had to travel to Andalusia to get a COVID test, but when she contacted the Health Department, she was told her positive case wouldn’t count in Okaloosa.

Superintendent Marcus Chambers agreed saying there was “absolutely” a backlog in COVID reporting. The difficulty in reporting, he said, is the take-home tests rely on people self-reporting to the Health Department and those self-reports getting added to the dashboard.

At Monday’s meeting, parents said they didn’t want to return to lockdowns and remote learning. They want to make schools safer for students and teachers.

Local pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Barnes spoke to the board recommending universal masking in schools based on guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“I know there are legal issues involved, but if they resolve I ask that you do this,” said Barnes. “I want to make sure we don’t overwhelm local pediatric ICU beds.”

Leslie Fuller, a parent of five kids, two of which are high-risk, said “doctors need to be leading the way.”

“I know you know that this is spreading and it is in the schools,” she said. “And I think it looks worse than it is.”

“If we did this mask policy from the beginning, we probably wouldn’t be where we are now,” added Sonia Vazquez, a local nurse.

Another parent, CarrieAnn Pope, pointed to the financial burden that the COVID cases pose with an average of 65 cases among students per day.

“If the policy is to be out a minimum of 10 days, that is a lot of school time lost and a significant financial burden for parents who may have to stay home,” she said. “I know masking is a hot-button issue, but it can reduce transmission rate up to eightfold.”

There were a few parents who spoke against a mask mandate, asking that the issue be left up to individuals. Across the nation, school board meetings have gotten out of control with parents getting in shouting matches about COVID protocols. Monday’s meeting was civil and without incident.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates was reinstated last week after a Leon County Circuit Court judge put a halt on the ban saying the governor overstepped his constitutional authority. At least two districts — Alachua County and Broward County — have defied the governor’s orders and issued mask mandates.

Taylor Kennedy, who has been a strong proponent for mask mandates for the school district and throughout the county, said she would like to see an opt-out policy if possible.

“Something is better than nothing, right?”

Ahead of last year's school year, the school board held a seven-hour emergency meeting to discuss a mask policy that ended with the board taking the position of strongly recommending masks. While the board did not discuss a possible mask mandate at Monday's meeting, Chambers thanked the people who showed up to voice their concerns.

“I absolutely do appreciate the input on both sides,” he said. “This is a tough school year. I’ll say that and I’ll say that very honestly. And we will continue to look at what is happening in our schools, make adjustments as we go through the school year and we will continue to do so.”