Palm Beach County schools to make masks optional when COVID-19 cases drop and kids can be vaccinated

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Students in Palm Beach County may see another change to their mask requirements while on campus.

The Palm Beach County School Board voted 7-0 to allow masks to be optional once again when children ages 5 to 11 are eligible for vaccines and the number of COVID-19 cases in the community reach a “moderate” level.

After Palm Beach County School Board members passed a mask mandate in August, against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ orders, all students and staff were required to wear face coverings on school grounds. There are exceptions for some medical conditions.

The state Board of Education will vote Thursday whether to impose more penalties on Broward and Alachua, the first two counties to defy state mask rules, and as new penalties for nine other school districts that joined them, including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

The Broward School Board refused to budge Tuesday, voting 8 to 1 to maintain its mask mandate, which allows an exemption only for medical conditions. The School Board is also refusing to comply with another controversial state rule, one that gives parents the right to choose whether their children are quarantined after being exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Dr. Belma Andric, chief medical officer of the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, said the FDA has a meeting scheduled for the end of October to discuss approving Pfizer vaccines for children ages 5 to 12 and expects them to be available shortly afterward.

Keith Oswald, the district’s chief of equity and wellness, explained to the board that there are four metrics that must be met in order for masks to be optional on campus: when COVID-19 vaccines are available to children between 5 and 11 years old; when the weekly average number of new COVID-19 cases are below 50 per 100,000 people; when the weekly COVID-19 positivity rate stays below 8%; and when both of those weekly numbers remain at those “moderate” levels for four weeks.

As of Sept. 30, Department of Health data shows Palm Beach County meets only one of those four requirements, Oswald told the board. The county’s weekly positivity rate is 6.5%, below the required 8% to be considered moderate.

Palm Beach County’s average number of new cases per week remains well above the threshold needed to relax mask requirements, though. The latest data shows the average number of new weekly cases per 100,000 people in Palm Beach County is currently 162.6. It would need to lower to between 10 and 49 for the school district to meet that requirement, Oswald said.

“So with all of those metrics and all those indicators in place is when we would move to masks being opt-out,” Oswald said.

It is unclear how long it could take for the numbers to drop to a level where school officials would loosen the mask mandate.

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According to the school district’s COVID-19 dashboard, a total of 5,333 students have had confirmed cases of the virus since the start of school on Aug. 10. As of Wednesday, there were a total of 38 cases, with 34 positive students and four employees.

Oswald warned that the spikes previously seen throughout the pandemic are not over, and school officials should continue to closely monitor the data. Oswald said masks would return to being mandatory if either of those metrics rose above the specified thresholds for a two-week period.

Dr. Alina Alonso, the Florida Department of Health’s Palm Beach County director, said some of the data indicates “we’re going in the right direction.”

But she also cautioned that a winter surge is likely coming.

“We probably will continue to go in the right direction for several weeks until we start into the winter and holidays,” Alonso said.

Sun Sentinel staff writer Scott Travis contributed to this report.

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