No plan for facemasks in schools despite 600-percent increase in COVID-19 cases here

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The month-long spike in COVID-19 cases in Indian River County apparently has been too mild for state or county education officials to consider requiring face masks and/or vaccinations for the school year that starts August 10.

Students and employees can exercise the option of wearing a face mask to guard against the virus, as well as being vaccinated against COVID-19, School Board Chairman Brian Barefoot said Friday.

But they won’t be mandated, barring a directive from a higher governmental authority, Barefoot said.

The School District has to follow the rules set by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Florida Board of Education and state Department of Health, as well as the guidance provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Barefoot said.

“We’ll see what happens, but right now masks are optional,” Barefoot said. “There are a lot of entities that will have something to say about that. We’re still three weeks off before school starts.”

A total of 377 county residents were diagnosed with COVID-19 during the week of July 16 through July 22, a 75 percent increase compared to the prior week when there were 216 new cases, a state Health Department report says.

The 377 cases was dramatic jump from mid-June when the state Health Department reported only 51 new COVID-19 cases in the county in the 7-day period between June 18 through June 24.

COVID-19 cases in Indian River County have spiked more than 600 percent since then, state Health Department records show.

“I am very concerned about cases rising here and every state in the nation,” said School Board member Peggy Jones. “I am also concerned about the Delta Variant. We need to keep a close eye on this in our county especially.”

However, DeSantis vowed last Thursday to fight any attempt by the federal government to require students to wear face masks in school, according to published reports.

The governor’s statement came three days after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new COVID19 guidance advising everyone to wear face masks when schools reopen, even if they have been vaccinated against the virus.

In response to a series of questions about face masks and vaccinations, School District spokeswoman Cristen Maddux said, “We continue to monitor the situation in our county. Our response to the recent increase in COVID-19 cases will follow the guidance of the Florida Department of Education.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Pippin, one of four parents who filed an unsuccessful court challenge last year to the School District’s mandatory mask policy, continued to speak out against face masks.

“Thank you again for still making masks optional for the next school year in busses and in classrooms,” Pippin told the School Board during the July 20 business meeting. “And also, for making vaccines optional as well.”

“We are in charge of our minor child’s education and healthcare,” Pippin said. “That includes quarantining, contract tracing, masking and vaccinating our children.’

Pippin also questioned the School District’s quarantining procedures for unvaccinated students and employees the upcoming school year.

Under School District policy, fully vaccinated students and staff members may not need to quarantine after coming in close contact with someone with the virus, the plan says.

A total of 3,124 students and 59 employees were quarantined during the 2020-2021 school year, school district records show. A total of 390 students and 116 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

“In the quarantining, the Health Department will be the one to ask, ‘are you vaccinated,’ or ‘are you not vaccinated,'” Moore said. “It’s not the business of the school system.”

“We’re going to continue to work with the Health Department to ensure we get that done in the most effective way,” Moore said about contact tracing and quarantining. “We are in the process of updating that process to maximize the amount of time students are in school.”

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