ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Students in Central Florida’s largest school district may not need to mask up in class starting Monday, unless the district takes immediate action.
What You Need To Know
- Orange County Public Schools' mask mandate expires on Oct. 30
- Community members lined up hours before Tuesday's OCPS meeting to sign up to speak during the public comment section
- The mask mandate was not included on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting
- Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said she would make a decision on the future of the district's mask mandate on Thursday
In a policy enacted because of high case counts and positivity rates reported during the COVID-19 pandemic, Orange County Public Schools currently requires face coverings for students and adults, but that mask mandate expires in just a few days. Tuesday's school board meeting didn’t include the district's facial- covering policy on the agenda.
However, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins did raise the subject during the superintendent’s report. She said she was not yet ready to make an announcement on whether to extend the facial-covering policy.
Jenkins added that Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings has a COVID press conference scheduled for Wednesday and that she would like to hear the latest status on the virus situation. She said she also planned to meet again with Orange County health officials and individual school board members before she would be ready to make a recommendation.
"While the numbers look extremely encouraging, I want to review this week's information before making a final determination," Jenkins said.
Karen Castor Dentel, who represents District 6 on the school board, proposed continuing the mask mandate with an opt-out based on a physician’s recommendation for six weeks for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. She said that would give students in that age group the time to get vaccinated and stay protected.
Vice Chairwoman Pam Gould, who represents District 4, said she thinks the School Board should follow the science, and with COVID numbers dropping, that the mask mandate be dropped.
OCPS Chairwoman Teresa Jacobs said it would be her preference to continue the mask mandate with a physician’s opt-out for six more weeks, but she said she fears doing so could cause further harm, especially with Governor Ron DeSantis calling for a special session of the Florida Legislature in November.
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"I think every person that cares about having a mask mandate in place and wants to extend it needs to be concerned about what happens if this board gets removed because we are seen to be belligerent for not backing off at this stage of the game," Jacobs said.
She said she worries that if the Parents Bill of Rights is given legislative authority, DeSantis could be granted the power to replace school boards.
After being specifically asked by Jacobs, Jenkins said she has the authority to decide on the facial-covering policy without further action by the school board and planned to announce her recommendation Thursday.
Even though the mask policy had not been on the agenda, people on both sides of the issue from brought their concerns to Orange County School Board. Parents and community members lined up hours before the board meeting to make sure they’d have a chance to speak. The board allows the public to sign up to give public comment about items of interest that are not on the agenda in the 30 minutes before the meeting, and Orange County families took full advantage of that Tuesday.
Some parents said they were happy to see the mandate end, but others — including those with the group "Mask Up OCPS" — attended the meeting to call on the board to follow the science and stick with their mask mandate until kids go home for winter break.
Lora Vail, an OCPS parent of a first grade student, said her 6-year-old is too young to get his COVID-19 vaccination right now. She wants him to continue to have some kind of protection in school until he has the opportunity to get the shot.
“I came out today just to implore the board to extend the mask mandate six more weeks," Vail said. "I know that the mandate ends this weekend on October 30th and we are hoping that they will choose to extend the mandate through the end of the semester to give our children ages 5 to 11 the chance to get fully vaccinated before their only protection is taken away."
The district’s mask mandate is set to expire Saturday.