As faculty, directors decide to allow ‘opt-out’ masking to continue, first case of COVID reported at TIS

September 3, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

Two new updates developed over the Labor Day weekend for Island School students, parents and faculty, after a somewhat controversial week preceding. Not only did the faculty and board of directors of the school decide to stick with the original mandate to allow parents to opt their children out of wearing masks in school, the first case of COVID-19 was also reported for the school year.

In a third new development, Florida’s Director of Education has announced that he has launched an investigation into the Lee County School Board’s decision to throw away the “opt-out” option.

On September 1 Lee County School District Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Savage made a decision to make masks mandatory in all Lee County schools, a decision that some school board members did not agree with.

While the county school board said that this mandate would be revisited in 30 days, a large amount of contention was displayed to protest not only the wearing of masks by children, but in the fact the mandate flies in the face of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Executive Order. The Order states that no school in Florida would require children to wear masks without an available opt-out form that the parents of students could sign.

On the evening of Friday, Sept. 3 new Head-of-School Christine Oliver sent parents an email that read, “The Island School would like to thank you for all your emails and support during this contentious time. After much deliberation and guidance from counsel, The Island School will follow Lee County’s original mask policy. Face masks will be required, but parents will have the choice to opt out. Face masks are required for all teachers, staff, and visitors.”

Oliver said the return to the original mask policy would take effect on Tuesday, Sept. 7, and told parents that the form they had already signed was still valid.

“Currently, The Island School does not have any confirmed cases of Covid-19,” she wrote. “If cases at the school begin to rise, and the need for masks and other precautions to control the spread is evident, this policy will be reviewed.”

In a peculiar twist of fate, the very next day, on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 4, parents received another email from Oliver that read, “The Island School has a positive case of COVID-19.”

She continued on to say, “Parents of students and staff that had a direct exposure have been personally contacted and will be excluded from the school campus until they meet the 2021-2022 school year protocol for controlling COVID-19 … All classrooms and office areas are cleaned and disinfected daily. In addition, enhanced cleaning measures will take place prior to students returning to school on Tuesday, Sept. 7.”

In summary Oliver said, “The Island School highly encourages the use of a mask while at school to help control the spread. Your student’s health and well-being are our top priority and we will continue to be proactive to ensure the safety of the entire school community. Thank you for your understanding and patience.”

Island School President of the Board of Directors Mary Keevil and Oliver sent out an email earlier in the week, on Wednesday, Sept. 1, explaining to parents that they heard parents’ frustrations and concerns regarding the use of masks in school, and that they were doing everything they could to gather information from a variety of sources to determine what the school’s options were regarding the new mandate.

“This policy was put into effect with very little notice to us, and we are doing everything that we can to deal with the situation as quickly as possible … We are currently waiting for responses from several sources that will help us to know what our options are going forward,” they stated in the email.

Things got even more interesting regarding the mask opt-out controversy, though when a letter dated Friday, Sept. 3 was sent to Savage and Lee County School Board Chair Debbie Jordan by Florida’s Commissioner for Education Richard Corcoran. He expressed “grave concern” regarding the district’s response to the emergency order put forth by DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health and told the pair he was launching an investigation into their violation of the current state emergency order, as well as DeSantis’ executive order.

“This rule, issued on August 6 by the Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, explicitly requires that any mandated mask policy imposed by a district or school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt out the student from wearing a face covering or mask,” Corcoran said in his letter.

He also advised Savage and Jordan that Executive Order 21-175 directs that any action to not accept an opt out from a parent or legal guardian for a student violates the Florida Parents’ Bill of Rights, which protects parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children in relation to COVID-19.

“Based on this authority I am immediately initiating an investigation of non-compliance with the rule adopted by the Florida Department of Health on August 6,” Corcoran said. “In commencing this investigation I am demanding that you provide a written response by Wednesday, Sept. 8, documenting how your district is complying with Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule 64DER21-12. Should you fail to document full compliance with this rule, in accordance with section 1008.32, Florida Statues, I intend to recommend to the State Board of Education that the department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for all of the members of the school board, as well as other sanctions authorized by law, until the district comes into compliance.

“Parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education and care of their minor children. The Department of Education will protect that right.”