‘Tomorrow will provide clarity’: Upcoming OCPS mask decision poses issues for both sides of debate

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County students and parents have less than 48 hours until they find out the status of the district’s mask mandate.

However, there are more consequences riding on its future than a simple piece of cloth.

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On Tuesday, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins told board members she would make the call after listening to county and health department leaders Wednesday morning. The county is expected to drop its state of emergency after months of steadily declining cases.

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“Tomorrow will provide clarity,” Jenkins told the crowd.

The decision to extend the mask mandate would run counter to board comments when it was re-imposed on the district. At the time, officials said the two-month run would hopefully allow COVID transmission to cool down and allow them to again make masks optional.

That happened, but the possibility of a further extension through the winter break has frustrated anti-mask parents, who say board members continue to break state law.

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“There is an appropriate way to challenge law, but you don’t challenge law just by disregarding it,” Nate Robertson said.

Board members said they generally supported an extension, but the consequences of doing so could backfire on the district.

Chairwoman Teresa Jacobs said Gov. Ron DeSantis would seek power to remove school boards that continue to defy his mask mandate ban during the upcoming legislative special session.

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Jacobs, acknowledging she’d be accused of only caring about keeping her job by being frank, told pro-mask parents gathered in front of her that a board full of DeSantis appointees would leave the district unprotected in the event of a future surge.

“They will not give one flip about what anybody who believes in masks wants,” she warned. “Is that a risk that is worth taking for the children of Orange County Public Schools?”

That comment caused other board members to pause. Outside the meeting, the pro-mask parents said yes.

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“They can do something now to protect our community, and that’s what they need to do,” Lora Vail said.

The possibility gave the anti-mask crowd something to chew on as well. While many would like to see board members more aligned with their views, conservatives typically loathe top-down government orders.

“It’s still a complicated issue because they were elected by the public,” Robertson said.

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If Orange County drops its mandate, it would join other districts in relaxing restrictions following the Delta variant surge and ahead of a kid version of Pfizer’s vaccine being approved.

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