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Manatee County Parents Divided On Masking Students

A man in a shirt, tie, face mask, and glasses talks while making a gesture with his hands
Manatee Schools Television
Chairman Charlie Kennedy said the decision to separate classes based on mask preference would ultimately be left up to individual schools, not the district.

Parents were split almost evenly on whether they will send their students to Manatee elementary schools wearing masks.

The Manatee County School Board outlined COVID-19 protocols and procedures in place for the upcoming semester at their Tuesday evening meeting.

Those included providing ample supplies of hand sanitizer, thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting classrooms, and updating school air filtration systems.

But the hot topic of the meeting was mask policy, even though no items on the agenda related to that issue.

“Which policy is about masks? When can we speak about the mask policy?” one audience member shouted from the back of the room at the start of the meeting.

“There’s nothing about the mask policy on tonight’s agenda,” Chairman Charlie Kennedy replied.

“I think a lot of us are here because this is what I know to be a school board meeting regarding the proposal of undoing the option to have masks — is that true?” another audience member asked.

“No, that’s not true,” Kennedy said.

The board stated that masks will be optional in the fall, as outlined in the Florida Department of Education’s April 14 memorandum to all districts. Kennedy said there are no plans to change the district’s mask policy, which ended in May.

However, the board did discuss the possibility of separating students based on mask preference.

Last week, a survey was sent to parents of children under 12 asking if they intend to send their child to school wearing a mask.

They received 4,303 responses — only a portion of Manatee’s roughly 18,000 elementary school students. Respondents were split almost evenly on the issue.

“If your child is 11 years old or younger, do you plan to send your child to school wearing a mask?” the first question asked.

The results:
Yes: 2,087 (48.5%)
No: 2,216 (51.5%)

“If yes, would you prefer they be in a classroom setting with other children wearing a facemask/covering, if available?”

Yes: 1,679
No: 1,580

“We had about 1,600 responses of ‘yes, I would like to be in a classroom with other students who are wearing a mask.’ That's a smattering of 1,600 kids across all of our elementary schools,” Daniel Evans, deputy superintendent of instruction, said.

“So the only way really to do that, to honor that parent’s request, would be if we had enough students in a grade level who could potentially make up a classroom.”

He noted that separating students would be a logistical nightmare and that few classrooms across the district would be eligible.

“In only a handful of classrooms across our entire school district — probably 10 grades across three or four schools — did we get enough responses that would suggest that we could schedule it,” Evans said.

The board brought up concerns about the number of survey responses and the effect that separating students could have on their social development.

Board member Gina Messenger added that some parents may have been hesitant to even respond to the survey.

“I understand you want this information just for decision-making purposes, but I can honestly tell you as a parent with two little ones, I don't think I'd be comfortable giving you that information,” she said.

“I don't think I have made that decision yet. So to ask me that question now, I don't think any information you would get from that would even be accurate.”

Kennedy agreed, and said the decision would ultimately be left up to individual schools, not the district.

“As much as I appreciate this data being collected, I think in total, it really doesn't mean anything because where it's meaningful is at the school level,” Kennedy said.

“And again, this was only for elementary schools. That's where it's important — at the school level, not the district level.”

School starts in Manatee County on Aug. 10. Principals will decide whether to go forward with “mask-only” classrooms.

“We’ll be working with those principals that did have the numbers that could possibly calculate for them, to go back and reach out to those parents to make sure the intent and really their desire of what that was going to look like,” Superintendent Cynthia Saunders said.

The Manatee County School Board was one of many in the greater Tampa Bay region that met Tuesday to discuss COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming school year.

Read the full list of safety measures: COVID-19 Protocols & Procedures for School Year 2021-22

Jacob Wentz is the inaugural WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2021.