ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for universal indoor masking for all teachers and students regardless of vaccination status, an online petition is calling for St. Johns County schools to impose a mask mandate when the new school year begins in two weeks. So far, more than 2,600 people have signed the petition.
“How are we as a school district ignoring our current community conditions and recommendations by national and local health experts? How can we keep our students who are under 12, and don’t have a choice for vaccination, safe?” says the petition created by Heather Prediletto and her group Doctors & Community Members for Masks in St. Johns County Schools.
For now, masks are optional for public school students in the county.
St. Johns County School Board member Beverly Slough said in a story published Monday by Florida NewsLine that “CDC recommendations are just that — recommendations.”
“Our low cases lead us to believe that we are in good stead to not require masks,” Slough said. “We anticipate and look forward to a very normal school year with 100 percent in-person learning.”
Slough told News4Jax on Thursday that the interview with NewsLine was conducted nearly a month ago but did not say if her viewpoint has changed since then.
“Our district continues to closely monitor the situation,” she told News4Jax in an email.
Slough said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order ties the district’s hands.
Last week, the Florida Department of Health reported that St. Johns County had more than 1,600 new cases with a 23.8% positivity rate. Two weeks ago, there were 730 new cases reported with a 17.9% positivity rate in the county. The increase in cases follows a statewide trend as the delta variant takes hold and puts a strain on the hospital system.
“Why is it now then, while cases are higher and rising, and there is a more contagious variant in the community, have you and the board decided to pull back measures?” the petition asks. “You may argue that children aren’t that affected and that they will be okay. I will argue that one severely ill child is one too many, and I’m not sure that this school board would want to take that risk.”
The district also made the decision to remove desk shields and get rid of temperature checks at schools for the upcoming school year that begins Aug. 16.
The calls for a mask mandate in St. Johns County come as school boards in two other local counties, Duval and Alachua, have found ways to require face coverings despite DeSantis’ executive order barring school districts from mandating that students wear masks.
“Studies have proven that masks are more effective when everybody’s wearing them,” Prediletto told News4Jax on Thursday. “The delta variant is a lot more contagious than the variant that we had last year.”
DeSantis isn’t the only one against the idea of mandatory masks in schools.
In May, dozens of people flooded what turned out to be a heated St. Johns County School Board meeting to call for the end of the district’s mask mandate. A petition posted around that time garnered more than 2,200 signatures.
The district later made the move to make masks optional as cases declined in the county.
The group for mask mandates said it plans to attend the next school board meeting on Aug. 10 to call for the change.
But the state is now exploring the possibility of using a state program to allow students to get vouchers to transfer to private schools if it’s determined a district’s COVID-19 protocols pose a health or educational danger to a child.
This state program is currently in effect for students who are bullied or harassed. The state school board will discuss expanding it to include COVID-19 scenarios on Friday.