Board Member Rob Hyatt called a special meeting to discuss the future of the district's mask mandate. (Maya Erwin/WUFT News)

Alachua County parents can opt out of having their public school students wear masks

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On Wednesday afternoon, parents, faculty and staff members attended a special meeting called by school board member Rob Hyatt to discuss the future of controversial mask mandates within Alachua County Public Schools.

The school board decided in a 3-2 vote to comply with requirements the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health have set.

Starting Friday, parents will be given the option to complete an “opt-out” form for their child, indicating that they would rather not have their child participate in the mask mandate.

This opt-out option will be used until Dec. 17. Once the winter break comes to an end, all mask wearing will once again be optional for all students of all ages.

This decision came after Hyatt had proposed that the ACPS mask mandate be extended to Dec. 6 at a board meeting one week prior.

“I think it’s logical. I think it’s fair,” Hyatt said at the Nov. 10 board meeting regarding his prior proposal.

Several parents demanded the mask mandate be extended as an effort to protect their children from COVID-19, while others argued that it should be immediately put to an end to protect their personal rights, he said during the meeting.

Alachua County Parent Teacher Association president Mary Benedict said that the PTA fully supports the school board’s decision to extend the mask mandate with the “opt-out” option.

“We support prioritizing the health and safety of students,” Benedict said. “We absolutely supported when the board kept the mask mandate, despite some of the legal challenges, because they are keeping our kids safe,” she said.

According to Benedict, young students will be more likely to show up masked to school when the mandate is in place, which will help protect students who may be immunocompromised and face more fatal COVID-19 symptoms than others.

Tillissa Barcia, mother of two ACPS students, spoke up at the school board meeting about the risk that removing a mask mandate may have over her special needs daughter.

Barcia said that her son has called in to school board meetings week after week in hopes of sharing his concerns for his sister’s safety.

“He would be crushed if anything happened to her and y’all know that. You heard it in his voice,” Barcia said Wednesday afternoon.

She continued, “We are letting these kids down. They are our future. They are our dream. They’re everything that we put them here for.”

Despite efforts from some parents to encourage the mask mandate within Alachua County schools, several others have spoken out against this COVID-19 precaution.

“Remove the mandate language entirely, including the policy,” one unnamed caller said at the meeting. “Our tax dollars are not to be used for this wasteful, disgraceful policy.”

After much discussion from both sides of the debate, school board members Rob Hyatt, Leanetta McNealy and Tina Certain voted to keep the mask mandate in place for the remainder of the 2021 school year.

Parents and staff await the outcome of this controversial decision.

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