Mixed reactions as Sarasota school mandate for students, staff to mask takes effect
This story has been updated to remove a speculative estimate of the number of students out on quarantine at North Port High School. The School District's COVID-19 dashboard had not been updated on Monday, and the original version of this story included a teacher's estimate as to how many people were out. As of 9:57 am Wednesday, the district is reporting that there are currently 50 people isolated with positive cases of COVID-19 and 5 people in quarantine after an exposure at North Port High. School officials have said these numbers are often days behind and don't always reflect the current reality.
There were mixed emotions among students headed to school in Sarasota County on Monday morning, with a new mask mandate taking effect.
Under the terms of a 90-day policy passed Friday night by the Sarasota County School Board, students and staff must wear masks for the next 90 days, or until the community's COVID-19 positivity rate falls below 8% for three consecutive days.
For some students, the new rule was welcome.
“I was wearing a mask anyway, and I think it’s really going to help protect us against COVID,” said Vivian Dougherty, an eighth-grader at Brookside Middle School. “Even though I’m vaccinated, I know that things are spiraling out of control again."
But others were not so keen on the hopes of a more normal 2021-22 school year so quickly evaporating.
“I’ve struggled with wearing a mask. I know a lot of my friends have, too,” said Mya Mamazza, an 11th-grade student at Sarasota High School. “I have asthma, so it’s really hard for me.”
She said that if the school district is going to enforce a mask mandate, it should start offering virtual learning again for people who can’t wear masks.
The emergency rule officially went into effect Monday, but the district is slow-rolling the implementation over the next week to give families time to adapt.
Superintendent Brennan Asplen sent a message home to families on Sunday informing them about the new policy and explaining what would be expected.
"Throughout Florida, School Boards are making various decisions regarding the masking of their students. One thing is abundantly clear: there is no simple solution," Asplen wrote.
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The new policy will automatically be reactivated if the positivity rate, after dipping below 8%, rises above 10% for three consecutive days.
It is not clear at this point what will happen if students do not comply. On Monday morning district spokesman Craig Maniglia said he anticipated it would likely be treated as a dress code violation.
The district sent home an opt-out form that would have to be signed by a licensed health care provider to opt out of mask wearing.
Maniglia said the district is stocking up on masks this week and that it will be an ongoing conversation with students and parents about the need to mask.
School Board member Tom Edwards persuaded the board to link the new policy to the measurable 8% positivity rate standard so that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Edwards emphasized that the new requirement would hopefully be short-lived, and he disputed the term "mandatory," insisting that it was a "temporary requirement."
“It’s a temporary requirement that will go right back to what we had before Friday. Nothing changed except the temporary requirement,” Edwards said. “My hope is that it is done within two weeks. I am praying that we can get those masks off our kids and our staff in two weeks, that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Sarasota Military Academy, one of the district's largest charter schools, announced that masks would remain optional at the school's two campuses.
The policy may be most challenging to implement at high schools and middle schools, where only a small percentage of students were choosing to wear masks during the first two weeks of school.
Joey Everly, a senior at Sarasota High, said he doesn’t really want to wear a mask.
“I don’t think anyone wants to wear a mask,” he added.
Everly said wearing a face covering all day gets uncomfortable and it's "super hard to learn when you have that distraction."
Sarasota High government teacher Christy Karwatt said it appeared maybe one-third of students on campus were wearing masks Monday, which was a major increase from the previous two weeks. Later in the day she said kids were taking off their masks since they knew it wouldn't be enforced until next week.
Karwatt said the ongoing saga makes for a perfect government lesson, as she explained to students how Gov. Ron DeSantis and school boards across the state were in the midst of a legal battle over the constitutionality of the policy.
"I mentioned how DeSantis had passed this, but some people feel it is unconstitutional and people think he is abusing his power, and it is going to the courts," Karwatt said. "Until then we have to comply with what the board says to do. It’s perfect for a government lesson."
A teacher at North Port High estimated roughly 50% to 60% of the school was complying with the new rule.
"It is a COVID firestorm in the North Port community," the teacher, who requested anonymity, said.
Cemantha Crain, Vivian’s mother, said her eighth grade daughter has a heart condition. The family decided to do virtual learning from spring 2020 to spring break of 2021.
“It was a tremendous personal sacrifice on my part and on the kids’ parts,” she said. “Everybody’s grades went down. Everybody had to really toe the line. So much personal responsibility was placed on families and students, because our leaders didn’t have the courage to step up and do what was right.”
“And so now it’s time for everybody to just face the facts, put on the mask, take the vaccine and let’s move forward for everybody’s benefit,” she continued.
Ryan McKinnon covers schools for the Herald-Tribune. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @JRMcKinnon. Support the Sarasota Herald-Tribune by subscribing today.