Students in Alachua County Public Schools can now opt-out of a mask mandate

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Over the past few months, Alachua County has seen encouraging trends with COVID-19 cases. In the latest weekly report, Alachua County has seen about 100 positive cases, down from over 1,000 cases two months ago. Alachua County Public Schools are noticing similar data for their students and employees. 

In the last 14-day report released by the district, there were 18 COVID-19 cases across all public schools in Alachua County.

Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson emphasized that COVID-19 rates have dramatically decreased since the beginning of the school year. While the number of students and staff quarantining was close to 2,000 at its peak, Johnson said they are now seeing less than 100 in quarantine more recently.

“We certainly have seen a dramatic decline in cases and those students who need to quarantine since they are in close contact,” she said. 

Guidance from the Alachua County School Board in a Nov. 11 meeting allowed their mask mandate to have an opt-out option. They also announced that they would likely lift mask mandates in January. Johnson said the low case rates and successful mitigation strategies implemented by the district throughout the school year informed their decision. 

“We attribute these low case and quarantine numbers to the strategies that we have put in place to keep those cases low, and that includes masks,” she said. 

Alachua County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations President Mary Benedict says this data gives the PTA a hopeful look into the future.

“This last year and a half has been a challenge, she said. “I hope as we move forward, our community will come together and support our parents, students and teachers.” 

Despite this, Benedict is still hoping the district and parents remain cautious. She says the prevention strategies the county school district implemented during the pandemic were important in keeping these case rates low. 

“If you just look at health and safety, PTA would rather the school district have waited to add that opt-out until all of our kids have the opportunity to get the vaccine,” she said. “But we understand other factors, such as legal challenges, are in play.”

The Alachua County School District was one of the first school districts to go against Gov. Ron DeSantis’  ban on mask mandates and remained one of many districts at the forefront of a statewide debate throughout the school year. 

Tonya Camaratta is a science teacher at Howard Bishop Middle School. She said she is wary of lifting the mask mandate too soon.

“I wish they were able to extend this mandate until the smaller kids were fully vaccinated,” she said. 

Currently, all children aged five or older can get the COVID vaccine. She added that her students did not have trouble following the mask mandate that has been in place this school year. 

Benedict hopes that the district will continue to keep an eye on COVID data and change guidance if necessary.

“We’re hoping to continue to support our parents and schools and get kids learning, playing and returning to normal,” she said. 

Johnson said the school board will continue to monitor COVID data but anticipates potential legal challenges from the state if they announce a mandate again in the future.

About Violet Comber-Wilen

Violet is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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