LABELLE -- Like all school districts in Florida, the Hendry County School District (HCSD) struggles with concerns over student and staff safety as the COVID-19 Delta variant ravages the state, creating challenges for school officials to bridge the gap between protecting children and adults and following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting mandated masking and vaccinations upon threat of withholding state funding.
HCSD follows the current law, choosing to let parents decide for their children whether to mask at school and adult staff to mask or vaccinate at their own discretion.
At the Sept. 7, 2021 regular school board meeting, board member Paul Samerdyke suggested a 45-day mask mandate starting Sept. 13 based on his discussions with medical centers in Lee, Broward and Monroe counties where school districts have enforced mask-wearing and Hendry County, where the school district does not.
All said they were overwhelmed with high rates of covid infections and all recommended masks, he said.
“I’m very uncomfortable making that decision,” he said. “I’m not sure any of the board members are ready to do that so I invited medical professionals to speak.”
He invited Hendry Regional Medical Center CEO R.D. Williams and Dr. Laura Jones MD, a practicing family medicine specialist in Clewiston, to speak during the public comment section, which was not made known in advance to Superintendent Michael Swindle.
Both urged following the Centers of Disease Controls and Prevention guidelines which includes masking, physical distancing and screening.
Jones said the hospitals are severely strained with the influx of patients and noted that recent test results show covid cases were up in Hendry County while they had started to decline throughout the state.
Hendry County was up to a 28% positivity rate, according to recent data, and 33% of those were under the age of 19-years old in school, she said.
“The rates in hospitalization in children have gone up over the summer from covid,” she said.
Williams cited a statewide study of K-12 schools where not all have mask requirements or physical distancing that found low rates of school-associated transmissions overall nor was resumption of in-person education associated with a proportional increase in school-aged children, although schools without mask mandates did experience higher rates of transmission.
“These findings are opined to find the effectiveness of masking, especially when physical distancing cannot be achieved,” he said.
After the comments, Samerdyke made the motion to discuss a temporary mask mandate, but he found little support from his fellow board members.
Board member Jon Basquin was unwilling to risk the schools’ finances by going against the Governor’s order, hoping to avoid the financial difficulties Lee County is experiencing by defying the no-mask mandate rule.
He said the safety of children and staff are a top priority but without the state funding, the district won’t be able to educate them.
“So, I think that is a very slippery slope,” he said.
Chairman Stephanie Busin said she preferred to follow the law, especially as the qualitative statistics provided at a recent meeting with Swindle and representatives from HRMC and Florida community healthcare representatives did not seem to support the need to go against it.
When asked if there was an issue with treating children or if they were inundated with testing, the unanimous response was testing, she said.
She said based on what they are seeing, children and staff infected with covid or under quarantine comprised a very small percentage of the school population, smaller than what is being experienced in the greater community.
“Covid is much higher in Hendry County than you seem to profess,” Samerdyke said. “I’m not sure where you got your data. So do I listen to a school board member, or do I listen to the doctors that came in?”
Busin said she was not provided the quantitative data she requested and had to base her comments on the qualitative data provided at the meeting. She still wants that quantitative data.
Board member Dwayne E. Brown, who seconded the motion for the discussion, also did not want to run afoul of the law.
"I don’t like what the governor has demanded of us, but we must follow the rule he has set by him being the governor,” he said. “I would like to see us as a board have more dialogue about this and then we could make a proper decision.”
He requested Swindle’s comments on the matter.
“I don’t want to downplay the severity of the situation, no matter what side of the issue we’re on,” Swindle said.
The medical representatives at the two meetings he and Busin consulted were supportive of the practices they had in place such as electrostatic spraying of school buses and inside the school, frequent hand and surface sanitation by students and staff, providing masks for those that want them and holding free covid vaccination events. Teachers are encouraged to come up with strategies to create space in the classrooms and other safety precautions.
The medical representatives provided positive takeaways and suggestions the school system has since put into motion and Swindle has been communicating with and following the Alachua School District which mandated masks at the beginning of its school year.
To date, there are 348 student covid cases in Alachua’s student population of 22,850, or 1.52%, he said. Hendry County has 74 active cases out of 7,250 students, or 1.04%.
Comparing the numbers between a mask-mandated school district and Hendry County’s unmasked, he said he’d prefer to wait until Florida relaxed its stance on the subject, due to the slim percentage differences.
“Folks, we don’t need to pick this fight,” he said. “… Mandating is going to cost us major problems what we don’t want to get into a fight on a local or stat level with parents and otherwise.”
When it came time for the vote, Busin reminded the board current policy dictates the superintendent has the authority to make the decision no matter the vote count. This was a policy unanimously approved by the board pre-election.
The vote was voted down 4-1, with Samerdyke voting nay.