Lee County School Board discusses possibility of mask mandate

Published: August 16, 2021 6:57 PM EDT
Updated: August 17, 2021 10:11 PM EDT

The mask mandate debate in Lee County schools has been renewed as hundreds of kids sat home from school Monday in quarantine.

A pediatrician says cases are only going to get worse if students don’t mask up or get vaccinated. A Lee County School Board member even suggested a vaccine mandate for staff.

Board members see the rising number of patients in local hospitals, including school-age kids.

Friday alone, The School District of Lee County saw 585 students and staff in quarantine. One school in the District had 14 teachers out.

So some board members debated Monday whether now is the time for drastic action.

Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida reported 11 kids were hospitalized for COVID-19.

That prompted the school board in Lee County to get advice from Lee Health and Florida Department of Health in Lee County.

“Would a mask mandate in schools be safer for our students and our staff?” Board member Chris Patricca said during the school board meeting.

“In my medical opinion, yes, it would be,” said Dr. Stephanie Stovall, who spoke during a phone call.

“So that being said, what are we within our legal rights to do?” Patricca asked the school district attorney.

The attorney advised the school board is at liberty to make a mandate decision with the understanding there would be a likely response from Florida Department of Education and Gov. Ron DeSantis, since he signed an executive order banning mask mandates in schools.

“To me, it’s not about parental rights,” Board member Debbie Jordan said. “It’s about making sure everyone is safe.”

“Should schools remain open, or do you recommend us to maybe shut down for two weeks until the numbers go back down?” Board member Melisa Giovanelli asked Dr. Stovall.

“That would be a last resort for me,” Stovall responded. “Unfortunately, what we’re predicting is that this surge is at least going to last another three to four weeks, so I don’t think just two weeks of pause would be enough.”

The surge in COVID-19 and the lack of a vaccine for kids under 12 years old are not the best conditions for the start of the school year.

“My fifth-grade son also has underlying conditions, where he’s on medication two to three times a day for his compromised immune system,” said Cher Martino, whose fourth and fifth-grader are both in quarantine. “So we take precautions.”

Martino sends her son and daughter to school in masks, but many parents do not. Three days into the school, both of Martino’s kids are home after they were required to go on quarantine.

The board took no action after Monday’s discussion regarding a response to surging cases within the school district.

But the issue of putting a mask mandate in place will likely come up at Tuesday’s board meeting.