St. Johns County School District may require masks for students riding buses

St. Johns County School District Superintendent Tim Forson talks about coronavirus plans during a school board meeting in March. (News4Jax)

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The issue of students wearing masks was a big topic of discussion Tuesday morning as the St. Johns County School District and School Board attempted to work through a plan on how to safely reopen schools in August amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The district presented a draft plan to school board members during a virtual workshop meeting that included how the district would handle different scenarios based on community spread.

If the spread of COVID-19 is moderate in St. Johns County, for example, the district could require students to wear masks when riding school buses. If there is no spread or low spread, masks will be “strongly encouraged,” under the draft plan. Superintendent Tim Forson said the masks would be provided by the district.

School Board member Kelly Barrera said she supports the idea of requiring masks for students on school buses.

In classrooms and hallways, masks would be “strongly encouraged” when students can’t socially distance if there is a moderate community spread, the district said.

Checking student temperatures was also a topic of discussion Tuesday.

Under its draft plan, the district will rely on students and parents to conduct temperature checks at home before coming to school. The district said it has looked into buying thermometers and other temperature reading devices but had concerns about cost and the practically of checking thousands of students each day.

“To depend on the students to do it, I’m concerned about,” said board member Tommy Allen. “Some students will not admit that they have a temperature, because they want to participate in some after school activity or they don’t want to miss the test or whatever else.”

Allen and other board members urged the district to further explore bringing thermometers into schools to check students.

“What I’m hearing is really a discomfort with not having temperature checks occurring for everybody in that building,” Forson said. “And so we’ll look at options that handheld [thermometers] like we do here [at the district office]...or a systematic way of doing it. There are walkthroughs much like metal detector systems way of doing it. They’re all at a cost and we’ll figure out what that cost is.”

The issue of students wearing masks was a big topic of discussion Tuesday morning as the St. Johns County School District and School Board attempted to work thr

The current proposed reopening plan is divided into three different protocols based on the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic; Low or no spread, minimal-to-moderate spread and substantial spread of the disease.

In the event that the virus is in a state of low to no spread, the instructional model would continue inside school buildings fulltime and the elementary schedule would revert to its regular status.

Should the virus undergo minimal to moderate spread, the district will have the option to continue in brick-and-mortar buildings or pivot to distance learning, depending on the severity of the virus’ resurgence. This strategy would also involve limiting interaction between students from different classrooms.

A district Crisis Response team, made up of school and health officials, will decide which phase the community is in, but the district said there is no set number of cases that would trigger a shift.

If spread happens, the district said Tuesday it could quickly decide to shut down classrooms, individual schools, or the entire district.

Forson hinted Tuesday that if the current trend of increasing COVID-19 cases in the state continues, the district would likely have to start the school year with the most restrictive measures, meaning full-time distance learning.

The district said it would immediately start to work on a plan on how to begin the next school year following Tuesday’s workshop, but nothing will be formalized until the School Board meeting on July 14. Another workshop is also scheduled for July 7.

Parents will be asked to decide by July 10 if they want their students to attend St. Johns Virtual School or brick and mortar school.

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Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.

McLean is a reporter with WJXT, covering education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.