The Okaloosa County School Board voted 4-1 to adopt a policy that strongly recommends masks for students and employees when social distancing is not possible.
The recommendation was made during a nearly seven-hour emergency meeting Wednesday night.
The issue was brought up at last week’s workshop at the request of Superintendent Marcus Chambers who asked the board what they would like to see in a mask policy for the district. School begins in Okaloosa County on Monday.
“What I would like to do is to open it up and go through the board and have a discussion on where we feel you would like to lead us, and myself as well, with masks,” he said at the Aug. 20 workshop. “And whether we need to generate a policy or whether we stay with ‘strongly encouraging when social distancing can’t be maintained.’”
A draft of the 90-day policy posted on the School Board website outlined a policy that would require masks when social distancing is not possible in schools, administrative buildings, buses and any district-sponsored activity. Earlier this week, the policy was updated with an opt-out option for parents/guardians and employees, which was a cause of concern for many parents who spoke Wednesday night.
Since last week’s meeting, Chambers said the comments he received were split “fifty-fifty” among those for or against a mask policy. And that was reflected in the public comments that came from parents, educators and students Wednesday night.
“(An opt out) will render the policy impotent,” said Michelle Duncan. “The only reason the parent opt-out language was added was to pander to parents who don’t believe in the virus. The world is not flat and over 800,000-plus people worldwide have not died as part of a hoax.”
Leah Felix of Crestview said she would “most certainly” be one of those parents to opt out of a mandate.
“I would have my children wear them in hallways but not in classrooms where desks are placed in six-foot distances,” she said. “I do not think wearing a mask for seven hours a day five days a week is a good learning environment.”
Some lamented the opt-out language because it would create a burden for teachers or create a divisive atmosphere around students. Many parents said they were frustrated that the policy was coming up just five days before school starts.
School Board member Dewey Destin made the motion to remove the opt-out language. He said for the board to not take any action would be “regrettable.”
“I think we’re going to be back here very soon wondering how we’re trying to keep these schools open,” he said.
Mask mandates have been a point of contention at local government meetings. Both the Okaloosa County Board of Commissioners and Fort Walton Beach City Council failed to pass a mask ordinance last month, while the city of Mary Esther has passed one and both Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field require masks.
However, that didn’t stop Fort Walton Beach City Councilman Kirby Locklear from calling in to throw his support Wednesday night.
“Wearing a mask is one of our best lines of defense,” he said. “(And) I find the argument that it’s an infringement on personal freedom rather shallow.”
After further discussion among the board, the drafted policy was revised to reflect the district’s original stance of “strongly recommending” masks, which was supported by Chambers.
The only School Board member who voted against the policy was Dr. Diane Kelly, who suggested a mask mandate at a board meeting July 27 that would include exceptions for special needs children.
The revised policy did not reflect what she’s advocated, she said. However, she also noted she would respect any policy that passed.
As of Aug. 20, about 7,200 students — or around 25-30% of Okaloosa County students — are going to school online. The rest will attend brick-and-mortar schools when they open Monday. In preparation of the schools opening, the district has purchased masks for students as well as 21,000 desk barriers and 10,000 face shields.
Other provisions for the district’s reopening plan include restricting visitors during the first nine weeks of schools; requiring temperatures to be taken; and requiring masks on buses since social distancing is not possible.
As for the handful of students who spoke at the meeting, they are OK with wearing masks.
“Wearing a mask does not impair my ability at all,” said 15-year-old Madeleine Hinze, a collegiate high-school student at Northwest Florida State College. “If anyone thinks saving lives and being safe isn’t more important that their personal comfort, then they should use virtual education.”
Eight-year-old Evelyn Sparks spoke to the board over the phone with her support of mask-wearing.
“When you wear a mask, you’re protecting more than yourself,” she said. “That (should) influence others to wear a mask.”