SARASOTA — Although Sarasota County Schools’ mask mandate policy wasn’t on the School Board agenda Tuesday, it was on the minds of the measure’s opponents.
At least 100 people came to protest outside the board’s afternoon workshop, almost all against requiring students to wear masks and most holding signs and waving American flags as cars passed by on Tamiami Trail.
Another 45 people signed up to speak during the public input portion of the school board meeting that followed.
“We must move past the politics, quite frankly, it’s embarrassing,” Superintendent Brennen Asplen said. “The debate about wearing a mask or not needs to end. Let’s move on.”
The district approved the 90-day mask requirement for students, teachers, visitors and vendors last month amid vocal opposition. Students can get a medical waiver for their children. The mandate will be lifted if the COVID-19 positivity rate drops below 8% in Sarasota County.
The School Board did discuss policy issues — specifically disruptions at its meetings — during their workshop Tuesday afternoon. The last few meetings have become raucous as members of the public express their passions on both sides of the mask mandate, and also clap and cheer while others are speaking.
“I think we need to re-establish what the rules are and how do we enforce them,” said Board Chair Shirley Brown. “When someone starts yelling while someone else is talking, what can we do? I have received emails that people are afraid to come to our meetings and they end up not being able to voice their concerns.”
Attorney Dan Deleo will be taking over the role of legal representation at the school board meetings.
Asplen said attorney Patrick Duggan will still be serving the school district, but in a different capacity.
“Patrick is a terrific lawyer, but this district needs more than one legal representative,” Deleo said. “We are revising how we staff our legal services, so we now have a team supporting the district.”
Regarding the shouting at meetings, Deleo said the policy that governs board meeting issues hasn’t been updated in 20 years.
“I surveyed council from around the state, and many are facing the same issues and looking for solutions as well,” Deleo said. “There is a Florida statute that governs this policy. We are looking for guidance to rewrite the language of the policy. The law states that the public has a reasonable opportunity to be heard. Whatever the majority will of the board is, we will revise the policy.”
Vice Chair Jane Goodwin added her own thoughts.
“I think we need to brush-off and revise the policy as soon as possible and advertise it,” Goodwin said. “The bantering at these meetings creates a toxic situation.”
Craig Maniglia, director of communications, asked the School Board if they would permit him to disable the chat function that appears on YouTube while meetings are streaming live for those who can’t attend in person. Obscene and insulting language often appears on the chat.
“We just can’t keep up with monitoring 15 posts per second during the school board meetings,” Maniglia said. “We will leave comments on for questions, so two-way communication will remain open.”
Asplen read a statement to those at the meeting.
“Staff are doing everything they can to keep our kids in the classrooms,” he said. “In Sarasota County, we are averaging 415 cases per day over the past week, slight decrease from last week.”
Asplen said parents submitted 1,626 mask exemption forms from parents.
Sarasota County Department of Health Disease Intervention Services Program Manager Michael Drennon said Sarasota County is averaging 415 new COVID-19 cases each day over the past week.
“That number is still higher than where we were at this time last year, but we are testing more people,” he said.