St. Johns County teachers, district at odds over student mask control in classrooms

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – As students in St. Johns County prepare to return to the classroom next week, teachers and the school district are at odds over student mask policy in brick-and-mortar schools.

Teachers are asking to have control over student mask use in their individual classrooms, a request that, as of Monday afternoon, has been denied by the district.

The current mask policy in the school district calls for students to wear masks if they are unable to social distance. But if a student can stay six feet away from the closest person, or is seated behind a district-provided desk shield, students have the option to remove their masks.

Teachers like Melondia Corpus, a veteran educator who teaches at St. Johns Technical High School, is worried the current policy will put her at risk.

“What we would like is to have the capabilities of saying, you know, you come into my classroom, I’m an at-risk teacher, I need you to wear your mask, maybe not for the entire time, but I need you to wear your mask for this period of time. Some might need it the entire time because social distancing is not there. We want to have that autonomy to say, ‘OK, you can take your mask off, or no you need to keep it on,‘” Corpus told News4Jax on Monday.

Corpus, 61, said that due to health issues she applied to be a teacher for virtual students but was not chosen.

“Probably, if I could, I would quit. But I’m in my 33rd year with St. Johns County and I only have two more years to go. So I’m trying to finish up those two years without a break in service or anything of that nature,” she said.

The SJEA, the teachers union in St. Johns County, asked St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson to allow teachers the authority to require masks in their individual classrooms, especially if social distancing is not possible, or if they have health concerns.

On Friday, Forson told union president Michelle Dillon it is not possible, so Dillon asked the school board to consider the policy change.

“We realize educating our students during a pandemic is a new challenge, and we know you are doing your best to keep everyone safe. However, not one of us is a health expert, and it is imperative we err on the side of caution,” Dillon wrote in an email to the school board.

Here’s a breakdown of the current policy.

Maks must be worn:

  • At arrival and dismissal times
  • On buses
  • In common areas where there are large groups
  • Before receiving a daily temperature check
  • When circulating in the building
  • Other times during the school day when social distancing cannot be achieved

Masks not be required to be worn:

  • Eating a meal or snack
  • During outside physical activity
  • In the classroom when dividers are in place and students are in their individual workspace without others in that same space

“It is also an expectation that teachers plan for time within the classroom so that students may have a period of relief from wearing the mask,” Forson wrote in an email to employees. “The purchase and purpose of the divider is to provide for a safe and less restrictive learning environment for children without creating high risks to others.”

The school board is scheduled to have an emergency meeting on Tuesday. On the agenda is an emergency rule that directly affects face coverings.

Among the provisions would be granting the superintendent the authority “to require District students, teachers, staff, volunteers, vendors and visitors when they are in District schools or facilities, on District buses or attending school or school-sponsored activities, to practice social distancing, wear masks or face shields, practice handwashing and proper hygiene, and to take such other precautionary and corrective measures as he may deem necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of District students, faculty, staff, volunteers, vendors, visitors and the community at large.”

The workshop is set for 9 a.m. and the special school board meeting will immediately follow.

Classes begin on Aug. 31.

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