Parents react after Orange County Public Schools plans to enact universal mask mandate

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orange County Public Schools leaders will implement a universal masking policy in schools for all students and staff, with exceptions for medical exemptions, beginning next week.

The decision came after a lengthy and often confusing discussion over legalities, district policies and what type of mandate to implement.

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Though a targeted, school-by-school approach to masking was initially popular, based on transmission rates within the county or individual schools, the board members decided it would be too chaotic for families to follow.

“[Doctors are] begging us to get these numbers down just so we can have a normal school year,” board member Angie Gallo said, citing research that showed masks were effective in reducing COVID transmission rates. She reiterated her typical opposition to mandates and said she looked forward to eliminating masks again as soon as case levels allowed.

Chairwoman Teresa Jacobs said, since the district planned to join Broward County schools and challenge Gov. DeSantis’ anti-mask mandate rule as an illegitimate law, the district would not be breaking any valid state laws by moving quickly.

“There is no other motivation for me as a school board member, other than to keep our children and our employees safe,” Jacobs said. “This is not about my salary.”

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With unanimous support among the board, the question was when the vote would happen and when the policy would take effect. Jacobs argued the district’s current policy allowed for immediate changes instead of requiring her to call an emergency meeting later this week.

Thus, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins was directed to order the mandate. In turn, she recommended that it begins Monday, August 30, and lasts for two months, until October 30.

In the days leading up to the meeting, OCPS had recorded record numbers of students testing positive for the virus. School administrators also said sick parents were dropping their kids off, and employees with ill spouses were reporting for work.

So far, the district has not been forced to close entire buildings, though one or two classes have been shut, employees confirmed.

“I’ve gotten six phone calls from my daughter’s school tonight,” a board member complained.

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The meeting had been well attended by parents and political figures representing both sides of the masking debate. One woman on the anti-masking side pointed out everywhere except school was essentially mask optional. She also said she didn’t think the benefits of masks outweighed the detriments to her daughter’s mental health and performance in class.

Board members disagreed.

“All of those things can be treated, but death from COVID cannot be treated,” one explained.

Parent Stephanie Vanos sat through the meeting in person in person to support the move, and joins a mix of reactions.

“We’ve all been so anxious watching the numbers go up, hearing more kids that are opting out, and it’s just taken a huge toll on our mental health and our children,” she said.

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Alex Castro, another parent, said, “I think everybody should make their own individual choices.”

College student Aisha Esperance listened to the meeting on her phone.

She has two young sisters in the district, and the whole family is immunocompromised.

“If she gets it, there’s probably going to be little to no treatment because we’re not financially stable,” Esperance said.

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