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Manatee School District Seeks Parents' Input On Mask Preferences

 Charlie Kennedy, chairman of the Manatee County School Board, had previously pushed the district to survey parents when the board voted in May to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year.
Charlie Kennedy, chairman of the Manatee County School Board, had previously pushed the district to survey parents when the board voted in May to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year.

A survey sent by the school district might influence whether fall classes are separated based on mask preference.

The Manatee County School District is asking parents of elementary school students if they would prefer for their child to be in a masked or unmasked classroom.

District officials and elementary school principals sent a message by phone and email to parents Monday evening.

“When students return to school in August for in-person learning, some parents may prefer more precautions for their child(ren) due to the fact that a vaccine is unavailable for children 11 and under at this time,” part of the message read.

Attached was a link to a survey that asked two questions:

  1. If your child is 11 years old or younger, do you plan to send your child to school wearing a mask?
  2. If yes, would you prefer they be in a classroom setting with other children wearing a face mask/covering, if available?

Board Chairman Charlie Kennedy says the query also came in response to a recent spike in new cases of COVID-19.

“With this uptick in cases and this delta variant, really over the past two weeks, parents have gone from feeling comfortable sending their kids back to school to really having some reservations about it,” Kennedy said. “So we’re just trying to respond to those reservations.”

With school starting in a few weeks, one-third of Floridians ages 12 to 19 have received a coronavirus vaccine. Those younger than 12 are not yet eligible for a shot.

If the district were to divide classes based on mask preference, there would have to be enough children in each grade level to justify creating separate classrooms.

After receiving results, principals will let parents know how they plan to move forward.

“We offer parents a choice by having in the elementary schools, potentially, classrooms where the parents have requested their child have a mask, and then those that do not,” Kennedy said.

“At this point, the survey is just gathering information, because for this to work, we need to have enough children at each grade level at each school to fill a class.”

Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics released updated guidance for schools, recommending that all students and staff wear masks, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The survey will have no impact on the district’s official policy that mask wearing is optional.

“I want to be very clear that we are not suggesting that at this time that we reinstitute a mask mandate,” Kennedy said.

“Personally, I am only speaking for myself. I think it would be wise for us to at least start the school year with a mask mandate in place, at least for the elementary-level kids because they have no vaccine. But that, as we all know, is an incredibly charged partisan topic.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order in May lifting municipal government mask mandates, but school districts were excluded from the requirements.

However, DeSantis and Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran have urged school districts to drop mask mandates.

The Florida Department of Education asked all districts to make masks optional in an April memo, despite contrary recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Passions are high all around this debate,” Kennedy said. “But as of right now, our school board is not considering going back to mask mandates.”

The 2021-22 school year for Manatee begins on Aug. 10.

The school board will discuss the district’s coronavirus strategy at their next meeting on July 27.

“What the board intends to do is make clear to every parent how we plan to protect your child when he or she is on our campus and let those parents make a decision for themselves if they feel that that is safe enough,” Kennedy said.

“Unfortunately, there are some families that need their child to be at school so mom, dad, or both can go to work. Some families don't really have as much choice. We just want to provide as many options as we can.”

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Jacob Wentz