St. Johns County superintendent: Face masks one of the most challenging issues

Survey: 30% of St. Johns County teachers ‘uncomfortable’ with returning to school in fall

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – St. Johns County School District Superintendent Tim Forson said Wednesday in a letter to parents that the issue of whether or not to mandate face coverings when school resumes in August has been one of the most challenging issues facing the district.

“We understand the benefit of facial masks, but also the challenge this poses to young children and the wearing of masks for extended periods of time,” Forson wrote in a letter to parents.

On Tuesday, a day after Jacksonville enacted a mask mandate for indoor spaces, St. Johns County leaders declined to take it up.

MORE | Here’s where other Northeast Florida counties stand on face masks

After discussing it for hours, only one county commissioner, Henry Dean, wanted a mandatory indoor mask policy. The other four did not second the motion.

While masks are not required in the county, they are required in indoor public buildings in St. Augustine city limits. A large majority of district schools are located outside those city limits.

The often polarizing issue of students wearing masks was a big topic of discussion last week as the St. Johns County School District and School Board attempted to work through a plan on how to safely reopen schools on Aug. 10 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The district presented a draft reopening 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. 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, under the district’s draft plan.

The district has yet to finalize a plan on how to handle the issue of masks, but Forson said Wednesday he has received a flood of emails from concerned parents.

“What is certain is that whatever strategies are implemented there will be some parents and staff that are highly satisfied, some that are very disappointed and many that are somewhere in between,” Forson wrote. “I have tried to reply to as many messages as I can but admit that the volume does take away from time on task to build the best system possible for the new school year. I will continue to read all messages and forward them to our planning team when appropriate. Admittedly, many of the questions being asked do not have a clear answer today.”

Forson said parents will be receiving communication Thursday about the return to school and preferences for each student.

“I encourage you to review and respond with the most appropriate choice for your family, knowing that flexibility will be most important in this changing environment. I appreciate your continued support and patience,” Forson wrote.

Forson said Wednesday the district is making purchases of protective materials that will assist in maintaining a safe environment for schools and on buses.

“There will likely be situations arise that will require short term closure of schools or at least individual classrooms,” he added.

Forson hinted last week 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 School Board and superintendent will meet again on July 7 for a workshop and are expected to finalize reopening plans during a School Board meeting on July 14.

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