School supplies for the COVID-19 age

The Volusia County School Board is moving forward on making face coverings optional for Volusia School students — theoretically by July 1.

At a workshop April 27, School Board members seemed keenly aware that they have been placed in an extremely unpleasant situation.

The discussion over masks has come up repeatedly, and several members of the public usually speak strongly against the masks requirement at every meeting. Until now, the board has deferred to the recommendations of the Department of Health.

Then, on April 14, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran released a memo urging school districts to make their mask policies optional. According to the memo, the DOE has concluded from its data that mask policies “do not impact the spread of the virus.”

However, official language in laws and mandates from the state, including the DOE, has repeatedly stressed that each district should follow the recommendations of their local health department.

The Volusia Department of Health follows the Florida Department of Health guidelines, which, in turn, follows the CDC guidelines. So far, those organizations have not concluded that masks are unnecessary in schools.

“The governor knows how to exercise executive order, and so does the commissioner of education, but you know what? They’re not going to do that,” School Board Member Ruben Colón said. “Because that opens them up to liability. So we get stuck in the middle.”

Colón, a respiratory-health professional for AdventHealth, made it clear he does not support any action not recommended by the Department of Health.

“I still feel this isn’t our place to make this decision,” Board Member Jamie Haynes said. Haynes has long been a proponent of an optional mask policy.

“Politics has made it our position,” Cuthbert replied.

Most board members seemed to be leaning toward making masks optional, but even then, there were caveats.

Board Member Linda Cuthbert wanted the capability to revise the policy again, if COVID-19 cases go up, or if other variants swept through. Member Carl Persis leaned towards rescinding the mask policy altogether — but under that scenario, the dress code would have to be changed to allow for masks to be optional, leading to a host of problems, like the definition of a “mask.”

The School Board is under a time crunch. To change the policy by July, they will have to finalize language and advertise the changes. On top of that, they must make a clear and final decision in time for parents to decide whether they would like to keep their children in school.

Board members pointed out that parents have contacted them saying that they would not bring their child back to school if masks were not required. Other parents have emailed saying they wouldn’t bring their child back if masks were required.

“We are in a very, very precarious position that is not of our own making. It’s not our children's making. It is the political, cultural climate,” Cuthbert said.

No decision was finalized. The matter is likely to be addressed again at the May 11 School Board meeting.