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Volusia County Schools’ mask policy has changed again, this time to allow parents to opt out.

At the Sept. 14 School Board meeting, Chair Linda Cuthbert passed the gavel so she could make the motion to allow parents to opt out, rather than requiring a medical waiver. Her motion passed 3 to 2, the same split that ushered in a mask mandate — with medical excuses only — on Aug. 31.

“This is going against my personal convictions and my personal beliefs,” Cuthbert said. “We need you to mask as much as possible. A mandate isn’t working. It’s causing so much contention.”

As at past School Board meetings where masks were discussed, audience members and protesters outside expressed their disgruntlement with or approval of statements made during public comment and by board members, at times loudly. 

Several times during the night, interruptions forced the School Board to take impromptu breaks, as tempers flared and excitement rose.

For instance, after the motion was made, cheers erupted, forcing the School Board to break until the excitement died down. Even Board Member Carl Persis stating that the COVID-19 vaccine was the best defense caused an uproar in the audience. 

At the urging of the School Board attorney, at each instance of disruption, the board took a 5- to 10-minute break, causing discussion of the motion to move in fits and starts. 

Cuthbert, who said two Volusia County Schools students died Sept. 13, was clearly struggling with her decision to support a parental opt-out. It wasn’t clear whether she meant the students died of COVID-19.

 “We all have different views of this, much like the entire country has different views of this, but we have to be able to listen to each other and come together as a community to fight this disease. The disease is our enemy,” Cuthbert said. “We lost two students last night. We have to mourn them.” 

Persis and Board Member Ruben Colón voted against the motion, for different reasons. 

Persis wanted a more robust policy, that included specifics on kindergarten requirements, and the ability to avoid quarantining if an exposed student was of age and vaccinated.  

Colón, a respiratory therapist with AdventHealth, said the science in favor of masking is strong.

“I support our position because I believe that it is good for kids and I can’t go against my conviction,” Colón said. 

Colón said less masking would lead to more quarantining. 

“If kids were exposed to a kid, are they wearing a mask? If the answer is no, that child will be quarantined. That’s the decision tree,” Colón said. 

Cuthbert said the medical opt-outs allowed earlier not only fueled division in the community, but were also producing dubious data.

“There were a lot of criticisms about the medical opt-outs; they were selling pretty cheap,” Cuthbert said.

When questioned, the advice from the School Board attorney was clear, that there was not much clarity, as far as the legality of a mask mandate in schools, given that the governor has banned mandates, and that ban is being challenged in court.

“There’s so much conflict here in executive orders and statutes or constitutional duties. All I can advise you is to do what you believe is the correct thing for students,” General Counsel Kevin Pendley said.

The School Board’s original mask mandate had been set to expire Oct. 15. At 9:30 p.m., the School Board was still listening to public comment and had not pinned down the details, such as when parental opt-outs will take effect and when the changed mandate may expire.

At the end of the night, Cuthbert announced she was not seeking re-election.

“I want to announce I’m not running for re-election in 2022. My mind is ready. My spirit is there, but my body is not,” Cuthbert said. Cuthbert battled cancer throughout 2020.

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