In the face of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and staff as the school year begins, the Volusia County School Board leaned in favor of a mask mandate at its Aug. 24 meeting, but got cold feet about the legality of requiring masks and dithered about when to take a vote.
The School Board decided to postpone a potential vote on a mask mandate until an emergency meeting set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31.
The school system reported 232 cases in schools two full days after school began Aug. 16. That number was up to 358 as of Aug. 20.
The School Board couldn’t make an immediate decision at its regular meeting Aug. 24 because the State of Florida is no longer under a pandemic-induced state of emergency.
To pass, a mask mandate would require the support of at least three of the five School Board members.
Members Ruben Colón, Linda Cuthbert and Carl Persis have all signaled they would support it. Colón and Cuthbert previously voiced support for mandating masks.
“Prevention is the best cure,” Cuthbert said. “Our best prevention is wearing a mask and staying socially distanced.”
At the Aug. 24 meeting, School Board Member Anita Burnette also suggested she would be in support of a mask mandate, while Member Jamie Haynes continued her pushback against a requirement that students and adults in schools wear masks. Adults, including teachers and volunteers, are already under a 30-day mandate to mask up.
Persis began the conversation about masks as a School Board meeting that had already gone on for four hours began to wind down. The mask discussion then continued for another nearly two hours.
Persis said the more transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 poses a larger threat to students as the school year begins in earnest.
“We’ve got to just put a clamp on it and see if we can suffocate it right where it is now,” Persis, a former school principal, said. “I think it is a war, and I think it’s a war we are losing. When you’re in a war, I think everyone has to make sacrifices.”
Across Florida, some districts, including those in Alachua, Broward, Sarasota and Orange counties, have passed mask mandates with opt-out options, despite the governor’s rule prohibiting mandates.
Counties imposing mask mandates have been threatened by Gov. Ron DeSantis with loss of funding equivalent to the salaries of board members who voted in favor of requiring masks in schools. School Board Attorney Ted Doran called the governor’s threats “preposterous” and illegal.
Superintendent Scott Fritz told the School Board he was wary of a mask mandate, not wanting to go against the governor’s orders.
“I understand you want to do what’s right for kids. So do I. But this should not be made lightly,” Fritz said. “This is a big deal.”
“We’re going to have some answers on the legal questions if we defer it some,” Doran said.
If the Volusia County School Board members adopt the emergency mask order Aug. 31, the mandate would be in place for 90 days, barring another vote to revoke the order.