School Board Mandates Masks

Evetty Satterfield

School Board Mandates Masks

Concerned about inconsistencies between schools, Knox County makes clear that students, staff and visitors will need face coverings indoors.

by jesse fox mayshark • August 13, 2020

Image
Image

School board member evetty Satterfield, right, speaks during Wednesday's board meeting. (Screenshot from KCSTV.)

When Knox County students return to school on Aug. 24, face masks will be mandatory except in specific circumstances.

The board also approved a contract for online instruction with Florida Virtual School.

The county Board of Education approved a new policy Wednesday night to make clear that for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone in public school buildings — students, teachers, staff and visitors — will have to wear face masks.

Principals will have flexibility, however, to work with teachers to allow masks to be removed in some situations — during chorus or band classes, for example — as long as adequate distancing is possible.

“We’re making a district-level decision to reopen schools, and that’s the course we’re taking,” said school board member Evetty Satterfield, who proposed the mask policy. “I also think we need to make a district-level decision with enforcing as much as possible to keep people safe within our schools.”

After some discussion, the board approved the policy 8-1, with only board member Patti Bounds voting against it.

The board also voted to approve a contract with Florida Virtual School to provide teachers for online classes this fall, although Superintendent Bob Thomas said it looked like Knox County would need fewer of those than he had proposed last week.

Mask Clarity

The mask mandate is not exactly new — the reopening plan that the board approved last month said masks should be worn in schools “when physical distancing isn’t possible.”

But the policy approved Wednesday is more explicit: “Face coverings are to be worn by staff, students, and visitors, with the exceptions listed below, while inside school buildings.”

Exceptions include: while eating or drinking; students with documented medical conditions or learning disabilities that make wearing masks problematic; and classes where the principal and teacher agree that removing masks is necessary “for specific instructional needs and other activities.”

Students who violate the policy will be subject to two verbal warnings, after which they are to be quarantined apart from other students and, if non-compliance persists, may be sent home.

Satterfield said one of her goals was to avoid having students suspended for mask violations. Without the new policy, she said, masks would have been treated as part of school dress codes, and dress code violations can ultimately lead to suspension.

“I think we need clear guidelines that aren’t punitive,” Satterfield said.

Bounds said she had been contacted by parents concerned that the policy was stricter than the original reopening plan.

“It is not what went out to parents in our back-to-school reopening plans, and I think it is extremely unfair to do this kind of adjustment now,” she said.

But board member Jennifer Owen said Satterfield’s policy really just codified what was in the reopening plan. If there was confusion, she said, it came from some principals not following the plan.

“This policy says the exact same thing as our opening plan for the district,” Owen said. “The issue comes from some individual schools that sent out opening plans that did not match our district plan.”

Owen was one of several board members who said they had talked to principals in their districts who were supportive of having a clear countywide policy on masks, which they said would be easier to enforce.

Board Vice Chair Virginia Babb compared the policy to the mask mandate enacted by the county Board of Health at the beginning of July. Although it stirred considerable controversy and community opposition, Babb said most people are complying with it.

“Sometimes you just actually have to put the rules out there to get people to follow them,” she said. “I know this is one of those things that we have a lot of disagreement in our community on. I get that, and I respect that people feel differently about it. But to try to get schools back safely, I do respect this and I respected the opinions I got back from my principals.”

Thomas said he supported the policy as well.

“We just know from the standpoint of the scientific data that if we want to try to prevent and stop the spread (of the virus), the importance of wearing the mask,” the superintendent said.

The board passed the policy on an emergency basis, meaning it will not need a second reading and will go into effect immediately.

Calling Florida

The contract with Florida Virtual School, a state-run online program that serves more than 200,000 Florida students in grades K-12, is for up to $1.5 million per semester, although Thomas said he expects the county will use less than that.

In introducing the proposal during last week’s board work session, Thomas had said the school system needed to fill between 55 and 65 online teaching positions to meet demands. More than 18,000 Knox County students — about 30 percent of the district’s population — have signed up for virtual learning this fall.

Now, Thomas said, with some positions filled by new teachers or existing teachers volunteering to teach online during their planning periods, the county had whittled the excess need down to about 43.5 teaching positions.

“Our teachers have really responded,” he said.

Between in-person and online vacancies, Thomas said the school system had narrowed its gap in the last week from 168 to 99.

Owen raised concerns about the contract allowing for the collection and sharing of student data with Florida Virtual School.

“The list of data that can be obtained by them, or that could be provided by us is fairly vast and much more than I have seen in other contracts,” she said. “It includes food purchases, political affiliations, religious information, email, text messages, network internet or cellular communications, documents, drawings, artworks, biometric records, voice recordings, handwriting, computer device identifiers and geolocation data.”

Gary Dupler, a deputy law director with the county Law Department who serves as the school board’s lawyer, said the list was just giving examples of various kinds of data, not necessarily saying it would all be collected or used.

“I think some of this, particularly with regard to things like computer device identifiers, is going to come up in that virtual setting,” he said. “And I think that's why they took the time to list some of those things.”

The board approved the contract 8-1, with Owen opposed.

Board members also unanimously approved a resolution asking the state to lift requirements for teacher evaluations and end-of-year standardized tests for the coming school year.