Students, employees and visitors will be required to wear masks while on school property for the next 90 days or until Sarasota County's Covid-19 test positivity rate falls below 8 percent for three consecutive days (the current positivity rate is 23 percent). The new rules approved by the School Board of Sarasota County on Friday include an exception only for students with medical complications or Individualized Education Programs.

The board voted 3-2 to introduce the mandate, with support from board members Jane Goodwin, Tom Edwards and Shirley Brown, and opposition from Bridget Ziegler and Karen Rose, who said they would oppose any mask mandate, even one with a broad opt-out provision.

"We must mask," said Brown. "Covid is not over. Covid is worse than it has ever been in our state."

The school board's emergency meeting was called as Sarasota Memorial Hospital continues to see record numbers of patients suffering from Covid-19, and as quarantine rules have led to staffing shortages at many schools. Nearly 800 Sarasota County students and nearly 170 staff members have tested positive for Covid-19 since July. Sarasota County as a whole is averaging 340 new cases each day.

Dr. Manuel Gordillo, Sarasota Memorial's infectious disease specialist, told board members that the hospital is experiencing staffing problems because staff with children are unable to work because they must care for children who must be quarantined after being exposed to Covid-19 at school.

The board considered a handful of options for the mandate, including one with a general opt-out for parents who don't want their children to wear masks. A number of school districts around Florida have moved forward with some form of a mask mandate, despite an attempt by Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent them from doing so. A lawsuit challenging DeSantis' authority to block mask mandates is set to be heard early next week.

Because of the surge of Covid-19 cases caused by the more contagious Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students above the age of 2, staff, teachers and visitors wear masks while indoors at schools, regardless of their vaccination status. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the same.

 Tensions ran high at the meeting. Outbursts from angry attendees opposed to mask mandates caused the board to pause the meeting multiple times, and some speakers were removed from the room. Several parents said that they would not comply with the new rules.

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