Joe Pepe

Joe Pepe, director of the Florida Department of Health for Charlotte County.

School Board

Charlotte County School Board members Bob Segur, Cara Reynolds, Ian Vincent, Kim Amontree and Wendy Atkinson listen to detailed reports about the current impact of COVID-19 from Joseph Pepe, director of the Charlotte County Health Department during a workshop Friday. The members decided not to move forward with a mask mandate despite the recent COVID-19 death of a Charlotte County student.

MURDOCK — While discussing whether to change its optional mask mandate Friday, School Board members revealed a Charlotte County student died from COVID-19.

This is the first known Charlotte County public school student to die from complications related to the coronavirus.

No information was released about the student nor school, but School Board Chair Wendy Atkinson said the family is making funeral arrangements.

Charlotte student dies from COVID-19

Charlotte County School Board Chairperson Wendy Atkinson wears a mask during a workshop Friday, in which the board decided to keep masks optional in schools.

So far, 12 children younger than 16 have died in Florida related to COVID-19, as of Aug. 27.

During the workshop meeting Friday, School Board members decided not to propose changing the district's optional mask policy, despite agreeing that wearing a mask helps curtail the spread of the virus.

Their decision was met with sigh of relief from a crowd of about 50 mostly unmasked parents.

Charlotte student dies from COVID-19

Mostly unmasked residents attended the Charlotte County School Board workshop Friday morning, at which time the School Board members decided to keep the optional mask-wearing policy in place.

Some in the front row held American flags, and at one point board member Kim Amontree asked a woman to stop talking or she would have a "deputy stand by."

The board came to its decision not to change the status quo after citing enforcement problems, especially if the courts decide to overturn the recent decision which deemed Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates, unconstitutional.

Members also debated how to enforce a mask mandate, and they discussed how to get students to wear appropriate masks consistently.

"Adults are the biggest problem we have in education," Superintendent Steve Dionisio said. "If we tell them to wear a mask, they will comply."

Superintendent Steve Dionisio

“Adults are the biggest problem we have in education,” Superintendent Steve Dionisio said during Friday’s School Board workshop about masks. “If we tell them to wear a mask, they will comply.”

Board member Cara Reynolds raised the issue of potential legal ramifications.

"Do we put something in place that's difficult for our administration to enforce?" she asked, then added, "I do believe there is validity that masks do work."

Their debates came in the midst of Atkinson telling them she thought mask-wearing could prevent illnesses and deaths.

Despite taking no action, board members did decide to provide a statement.

Charlotte student dies from COVID-19

Adele Giullian, Susan Hutt and Crystal Motuzas held anti-mask signs outside the Charlotte County School Board office Friday before a School Board workshop, where the mask policy was discussed. It also was learned during the meeting that a Charlotte County student has died from COVID-19 complications.

Board member Ian Vincent asked Atkinson, to draft one with the wording: "We believe the best way to keep our children safe is to have everyone vaccinated who can."

Amontree said she wanted it to include: "We support the Board of Health recommendations."

Their decision came some two and a half hours after a presentation by Florida Board of Health Charlotte County Director Joe Pepe.

"We have lost people of all ages," he said.

Pepe's recommendations were:

• Promote vaccinations

• Consistent and correct mask use

• Physical distancing

• Screening for COVID-19

• Handwashing

• Staying home when sick

• Contact tracing

"I don't believe anyone here on the board would say that masks and vaccines don't make us safer," Vincent said.

Charlotte student dies from COVID-19

During a workshop Friday about whether to make masks mandatory in public schools, Charlotte County School Board members revealed that a student has died from COVID-19.

Pepe said 122,515 have been vaccinated in Charlotte County, as of a report released Aug. 27 by the Florida Department of Health. 

Furthermore, the new case positivity rate was 21.4% compared to the state average of 16.8%, as of the Aug. 27 report.

He said that in July there were 5,837 new cases, and in August there were 4,467 new cases. In the age group from infant to 24, there were 1,271 cases.

There are some 50 to 100 new cases in grades K-12 per day, and the latest school data showed 210 confirmed cases and 164 known contacts.

"A lot of parents can't afford to stay home with kids," Pepe said.

He added that the schools and the health department have pledged to help families with resources, among them an improved rapid test that has results available in 15 to 20 minutes.

"This will help them get back in the classroom faster," he said.

He said the older age groups have the highest percentages of vaccinations and the lowest rate is in the 25-29 age group.

Pepe said vaccination "does not give total protection, but it keeps you from having severe illness and out of the hospital."

He also said there is no perfect mask.

"I'd like to bring to the table as many tools so you can remain open safely," he said.

Pepe said the current rate is "smoothing out; we're leveling off."

He stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, saying, "When people become immune, it makes it harder and harder for (COVID) to find new fuel," adding getting vaccinated will "slow it down."

Some in the crowd mumbled their dissent, apparently against vaccinations.

"The one takeaway is that the most important thing is vaccination," Amontree said. "It's my personal opinion that if adults had done their job and been vaccinated, we would not be sitting here having this conversation."


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