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Sarasota School Board Says Students Will Likely Wear Masks Through June

School superintendent Brennan Asplen and school board member Bridget Ziegler wear masks at the school board workshop
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota County Schools
Sarasota Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen (left) and School Board Member Bridget Ziegler

Health experts say coronavirus cases are expected to rise as schools and bars reopen, and that masks are one of society's only defenses until a vaccine is available.

The Sarasota School Board on Tuesday took steps to advance its mask policy until the end of the school year to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

During a midday workshop, board members heard from Sarasota Memorial Hospital infectious disease doctor Manuel Gordillo, who said talk about masks lowering oxygen intake “is just simply a myth, and it should not be in this conversation.”

He also lamented the push — by some members of the community — to end mask-wearing, when the virus is still spreading and there is no vaccine against it.

“This is one of the few effective measures we have,” said Gordillo, responding to questions from the board.

“And to me it's like asking the question, ‘When can we stop wearing seatbelts because we haven't had any accidents?"

Manuel Gordillo talks to the board via Zoom from his office
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota County Schools
Manuel Gordillo, infectious disease specialist

The positive test rate in Sarasota county is currently low, at 2.7%. Among children, 18 and younger, it’s 9.5% according to county department of health data.

“We have a long way to go,” said health department administrator Chuck Henry.

“The concern is there is nothing that holds us at that level as a community other than the steps we have taken collectively as a community, and that would include social distancing and wearing a mask,” he said.

He added that as businesses and schools open “we expect to see an increase in those numbers but hopefully if we continue wearing a mask and social distancing, those numbers will still stay low.”

Board member Bridget Ziegler pressed for language in the district mask policy that would allow students to take breaks from wearing them.

Asked what such breaks should look like, health department officer Michael Drennon said “ideally breaks would occur best outside the classroom, outside, when they are in fresh air. I don’t think mask breaks are a bad idea, it is just how they are implemented is going to be very important.”

Drennon said students must maintain a proper social distance.

“It is going to be critical that the duration that they are not wearing the mask is definitely kept less than 15 minutes -- probably less than five,” he said.

“They can’t be getting up and interacting with others if they are going to have a break.”

Woman in blue shirt with Trump gaiter draped around neck speaks during public comment
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota County Schools
Amy Cook of North Port was among the speakers during the public comment section

At a school board meeting later in the afternoon, more than a dozen people spoke during the public comment portion to demand that schools stop requiring masks. Many identified themselves as parents, and a few wore “Women for Trump” masks.

“It has been reported that children going back to school have developed bacterial infections from these face diapers,” said Amy Cook, a North Port mother of two.

“It also makes it easier for them to not to be identified for child traffickers,” she said, as others in the audience snapped their fingers and murmured in support.

After the public comment portion of the meeting ended, the crowd shouted over board member Jane Goodwin as she attempted to read aloud statistics on COVID-19 from the Department of Health.

“More students are getting COVID, more youngsters are getting COVID,” Goodwin said.

“They are testing more! Zero deaths!” people in the audience yelled.

Soon after, board chair Caroline Zucker asked security to clear out of the room.

A final vote on the mask policy is expected at the next Sarasota School Board meeting Oct. 6.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.