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Sarasota Mandates 'Face-Covering' In Schools, Lets Parents Choose Masks Or Shields

Sarasota School Board Member Eric Robinson wears a face mask at a workshop on August 4.
Sarasota County Schools
Sarasota School Board Member Eric Robinson wears a face mask at a workshop on August 4.

Children who attend school in Sarasota County will have to wear either a mask or clear face shield, except in a handful of circumstances, the school board decided by a unanimous 5-0 vote on Tuesday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask-wearing in public because it may slow the spread of coronavirus, especially when six feet of distance cannot be maintained. However, it does not recommend face shields as a substitute for masks.

Masks have become a divisive issue in the broader public, and school board members acknowledged that their decision to allow a choice between masks and shields aimed to cut down on opposition to face-covering among children in schools.

“It is not known if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles,” according to the CDC web site.

The Sarasota School Board had previously discussed the issue at a meeting July 14.

Tuesday’s vote makes masks or face shields in school for children over age 2 a formal policy of the district, and outlines what kinds are appropriate and when exceptions may be made.

“There are so many things you can read, one person will say it’s dangerous and worse off for them, and others will say it’s okay as long as it’s 10 or over, so with that I think the compromise of ‘face-coverings’ is a good place to start,” said school board member Bridget Ziegler.

Suitable options, according to the new Sarasota Schools policy, include “commercially produced surgical masks, respirators, or face shields.”

Others include “commercially produced or home-made cloth face coverings provided that they cover both the mouth and nose and fit snugly against the sides of a person's face with little to no gaps,” it says.

Solid material or cloth must be used for the mask. Lace, mesh, or other largely porous material are not allowed, and the “principal shall have the final authority to determine the suitability of any face covering material,” according to the policy.

School board member Eric Robinson said he was concerned about the prospect of teachers possibly having to enforce mask rules.

“My issue is with the conflict of wanting everyone to feel safe, and the teachers saying ‘I can’t be the mask police,’” Robinson said.

“And we don’t want them to be the mask police, but we do want everyone to keep each other safe,” answered Sarasota County Schools Assistant Superintendent Laura Kingsley.

According to the policy, exceptions will be made for those who “present school officials with a certification from a health care provider that the person has a medical, physical or psychological contraindication that prevents the person from being able to safely wear a face covering.”

Face coverings are also not required when students engage in strenuous physical activity, playing musical instruments, or eating meals.

Responding to concerns that young children may not be able to wear a face-covering all day, Kingsley said elementary teachers “will make sure our children have breaks and can function with the mask and safely take breaks away from the masks.”

School Board member Jane Goodwin said she wants parents to get their kids used to masks before school starts on August 31.

“I see a lot of little tiny people in the grocery store and other places wearing a mask quite nicely. And I love the fact that we hear about parental involvement, but I think it is up to a parent to start encouraging these children to wear masks for a little while,” Goodwin said.

“I think we could even have some fun with it. I think we could have mask contests.”

Sarasota County commissioners have declined to make masks mandatory county-wide.

“We just have to be smart and not let our guard down,” said school board member Shirley Brown.

“I know there are still people out there that don’t understand, but even our president and governor are wearing masks in public,” she said.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.