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School district adopts emergency requirement for protective gear

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Sep 9, 2020

news@breezenewspapers.com

Students who won’t wear masks after education and warnings could be re-assigned to virtual learning.

The school board of Lee County approved a policy on Sept. 1 addressing protective gear that may be required in times of emergency with actions the district will take to address non-compliance with its mask policy also discussed.

The new Emergency Requirement for Protective Gear policy comes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also is intended to address any future health-related emergency.

“The policy the board is considering today is a global generic policy, not a mask policy,” School Board Attorney Kathy Dupuy-Bruno said. “It’s a policy for protective gear based on what medical professionals are providing. They (district legal staff) have developed guidelines to address COVID-19 specifically.”

The board also heard what actions the district plans to take if a child is a “repeat offender” of the mask policy in place. Actions can range from helping the child learn to wear to a mask to isolating the student and calling a parent to come get them or, if the behavior continues, enrolling that student in virtual learning, officials said.

The new all-encompassing policy is effective immediately and will be in effect for 90 days.

Policy 1.181 states “Where the District is confronted with a health emergency, including pandemic and infectious disease situations, which might require or warrant the wearing of protective gear to include masks, shields, glasses, hazmat suits or other coverings pursuant to guidelines, directives and/or advice issued by the Federal Centers for Disease Control, the State of Florida Department of Health and/or other local health officials, those guidelines and/or directives will be followed. The purpose of the protective gear, masks, shields, glasses, hazmat suits or other coverings is for medical and safety reasons only. Procedures or guidelines related to the use or implementation of protective gear on School Board Property will be established by the Superintendent and are incorporated by reference herein. All individuals entering School Board property shall abide by the guidelines established by the Superintendent.”

Approval was not unanimous.

Board Member Melisa Giovannelli, the lone vote opposed, said any policy needs to be very clear. She said she wants to protect the students and teachers but also wants to make sure all sides are heard.

“It’s challenging being an elective official. We have to listen to all sides of it,” she said, adding that she has had both friends and family affected by COVID-19. “I understand COVID is real. We have to look at all the data and not part of the data. I thought this policy still had issues and is not clear looking at (all) information possible.”

Giovannelli said the district has seen several pandemics and a policy like this has never been in place. It is a policy based on one pandemic, she added.

“We have to look at the history of what happened in the past and not change history. I look forward to seeing what happens in 90 days in regards to the policy the board has put in place,” she said. “Lee County is not a complete hot spot. We have to look at everything and not just partial data.”

She clarified her position on social media after the meeting saying that while she believes that masks do stop the spread of the virus, the district administration has not handled its PPE policies in a way she considers to be proper.

“The mask rules in place were never voted on by the board,” she shared via Facebook. “And sadly today, my fellow board members gave up more control to the superintendent when they didn’t need to.”

Dupuy-Bruno said because of COVID-19 the recommendation from the Florida Department of Health and the CDC they are advising and recommending masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, thus the guidelines have been created to address the issue of wearing masks for students, staff and public that enter the school buildings.

Among the 67 counties in Florida, 54 school districts are mandating or requiring masks, she added.

A lengthy presentation was provided by the district’s legal staff regarding face covering guidance. Both staff and students are required to wear “appropriate face coverings” that cover the mouth, nose and chin.

Staff Attorney for Academic Services Kristine Shrode provided examples of acceptable face coverings, which include commercially produced face coverings/masks or respirators, cloth face coverings and face shields in conjunction with a face covering.

Face coverings that are not acceptable include open chin triangle bandanas, face coverings containing valves or vents, mesh, lace or holes, as well as those made of porous material.

Neck gaiters are acceptable, but have to be doubled up.

Exemptions were also discussed. Shrode said staff requesting a medical exemption must present the district with documentation from a licensed health provider indicating the person has a medical, physical, psychological contraindication that requires an accommodation, or prevents the person from being able to safely wear a mask covering.

Other teacher exemptions include when staff is in a closed space, such as an office, or when office spaces are sufficiently partitioned; engaging in strenuous physical activity inside or outside a facility and during outdoor activities and recess. Social distancing must be maintained in these situations.

There are also exemptions based on disability for students — medical exemption for 504 students. Again, students must provide school district staff with documentation from a licensed health care provider that the student has a medical, physical or psychological contraindication that requires accommodation or prevents the student from being able to safely wear a mask.

Shrode said they have students who are already identified with disabilities who have an IEP. A meeting will be convened and a team will discuss what that exemption will look like, which may include the student wearing a face shield to include goals to tolerate mask wearing.

It may be “10 minutes at a time and as we progress provide rewards for time to keep on longer. The goal is to get the students to wear them,” Shrode said.

Every student is different, as are the situations, which is why the district will collect all information necessary to make a sound decision, she said.

A medical diagnosis alone does not mean a student receives accommodation. Shrode said it is a case-by-case analysis with a big part having staff members weigh in determining if the request is reasonable.

Chief Legal Counsel Brian Williams said every situation is a case-by-case analysis because, obviously, it has been some time since they have had a pandemic of this nature.

“To incorporate current existing laws as it relates to enforcing a mask policy, it is relatively new grounds in terms to this type of situation,” he said. “We are evaluating everything on a case-by-case basis, so we can look at each situation as kind of a progressive approach. Here is a mask policy and it incorporates situations that personally affect different students and different employees, different visitors and guests and different vendors. We are trying to be understanding of those situations, but we are also trying to put into effect a policy that aims at protecting everyone.”

Williams went on to say that he wants everyone to understand that they look at it from the health, safety and welfare of all students.

“Then we try to address each individual concern that is brought to our attention,” he said. “I think that is the fair way to do it and also the safest way to do that in light of all the concerns that are expressed.”

If students are not wearing a mask, Shrode said they will treat it as a health issue, as well as an opportunity to educate the student on the importance of wearing a mask. A face covering will be provided to that student. If that student continues to refuse to wear the mask, Shrode said they will be isolated and the parent, or guardian will be contacted to pick up the student.

If there are repeated offenses in not wearing a face covering that student will be enrolled in a virtual learning program. Although there is no magical number, Shrode said if it happens more than two or three times the student will be enrolled in virtual learning.

“We want to try to work with the student and family in understanding the importance of everyone wearing a mask and keeping everyone safe,” she said.

Shrode said students, especially the younger ones, are going to need breaks from wearing the masks, which will be done during supervised breaks determined by the school, such as eating lunch, recess and P.E.

A unanimous consensus was agreed by the board to have Dupuy-Bruno include language that the superintendent will make recommendations for procedures and guidelines, which will be approved by the board with the understanding that the specificity of those recommendations will be on a case-by-case basis, so that there will be some flexibility. This language would be part of the permanent policy, which will be revisited.