INDIAN RIVER COUNTY ― Indian River County began the school year with only a “recommendation” that students and staff wear a mask indoors when social distancing is not possible. Less than two weeks into the school year, Superintendent Dr. David Moore and the school district decided that a mere recommendation is not enough.

“The data says the school system that educates the children in Indian River County is on the verge of closing,” Dr. Moore said in his Aug. 26 Facebook Live video. “We do not want to have that happen. We saw and experienced the impacts of closing doors last year. We saw the ineffective practice of virtual models that didn’t fully address the needs of children.”

At its Aug. 24 meeting, the school board approved requiring face masks in schools, pre-K through grade 8, with the opportunity to opt-out with a doctor’s note. High school students are exempt, primarily because those students are eligible to get the vaccine.

Medical exemptions from last year will be honored. Dr. Moore said the new mask requirement will expire on Wed., Sept. 15 unless extended, which could happen at the next board meeting on Sept. 14.

The vote for the new policy was 3-2. Board members Brian Barefoot, Dr. Mara Schiff, and Dr. Peggy Jones voted in favor of the mask mandate. Teri Barenborg and Jacqueline Rosario voted against.

Dr. Moore explained the changes in his Aug. 26 Facebook Live video. He discussed the high level of community transmission in Indian River County which, at that time, totaled 273 positive students, 1.8% of the student population, and 108 positive staff.

“We’re at 5% of our staff out,” Dr. Moore said. “That is a concern. That is a major concern.” Since then, the number of staff out has grown from 108 to at least 136.

After comparing this year’s numbers to last year’s numbers, Dr. Moore said “this is significantly worse than last year. This spreads at a significantly higher rate than what we were exposed to last school year.”

That change in circumstances, Dr. Moore said, required a more aggressive approach.

“This is a change in practice from where we started the school year,” Dr. Moore said. “As you know, we started the school year with a high recommendation of wearing a face covering while indoors when social distancing was not possible.”

“For those families who chose to opt-out of following that recommendation, you were provided the opportunity to send a letter or to go into (the parents’ web portal) and log on, making it as simple as possible for you as a parent. As we evaluated the first 11 days of school, we quickly came to the understanding if we did not shift or change practice based on the relevant data, we were quickly approaching the space in which, and the date in which, schools would close: total school closure, grade level closure, as well as classroom closure. We looked and made a recommendation to the board to be approved based on the data, based on the reality of where the School District of Indian River County is. Based on a decision that every single child deserves a free and appropriate public education, and it is our primary responsibility to guide and lead the district, in order to ensure every child who wakes up, goes to a school, and it is open, it is safe, and children can engage with the great instructors that are in our schools, and receive a quality education to maximize their full potential.”

“Let me be clear, this is not a decision that I wanted to make ... We cannot have our head in the sand. We must look at the reality of what’s taking place here, and we must respond.”

That reality is on display for all to see on the SDIRC website.

As of Aug. 30, the SDIRC COVID Dashboard showed 333 total student COVID cases, and 136 positive staff, with an additional 629 students in quarantine.

The numbers for each school as of Aug. 30 follow. The first number is positive student cases, and the second number is positive staff. The data does not include SDIRC charter schools.

Alternative Center: 0/1; Beachland Elementary: 17/15; Citrus Elementary: 13/9; Dodgertown Elementary: 2/1; Fellsmere Elementary: 1/7; Gifford Middle: 14/4; Glendale Elementary: 14/2; Indian River Academy: 9/1; Indian River Virtual: 0/0; Liberty Magnet: 5/0; Osceola Magnet: 11/0; Oslo Middle: 18/1; Pelican Island Elementary: 7/7; Rosewood Magnet: 16/6; Sebastian Elementary: 11/3; Sebastian River High School: 22/5; Sebastian River Middle: 28/3; Storm Grove Middle: 34/10; Treasure Coast Elementary: 20/9; Treasure Coast Technical: 0/0; Vero Beach Elementary: 21/3; Vero Beach High School: 65/22; Wabasso School: 4/5; Non-school-based district staff: 21.

“Beachland, Citrus, Treasure Coat, Vero Beach Elementary, you can see, those are outbreaks,” Dr. Moore said, adding that parents in those schools are making the decision to keep their students home and safe, leading to reduced attendance in those schools.

Dr. Moore said Indian River County students have a 1.8% positive rate, higher than St. Lucie, .68%, and Martin, .84%. Staff positive at about 5% in Indian River County is higher than St. Lucie, 2%, and Martin, 1.32%.

“These are very difficult, hard, and complex times,” Dr. Moore said. “We are moving into a reality that is challenging. We as a community need to stick together in order to move through this time. This is a decision that wasn’t taken lightly. This is a decision that may not be popular across the entire community. But based on the reality of where we stand, it would be disrespectful, it would be defiant for us not to examine that reality and then respond. We’re asking for the entire community’s support in implementing this initiative.”

Adding to that worrisome reality are the recent COVID deaths of teachers Sarah Zevallos at Fellsmere Elementary School, and Tabitha Flair at Treasure Coast Elementary School.

Then, on Aug. 27, Beachland Elementary School closed until Labor Day.

According to an Aug. 29 message from Beachland Principal Rachel Finnegan, “Our school is temporarily closed through Monday, Sept. 6. We will welcome all students, staff, and teachers back on Tuesday, Sept. 7. When we return, students, staff, and teachers will be required to wear a face covering. Face coverings will be mandatory for all students Pre-K to 8th grade while indoors when social distancing is not possible and while utilizing school transportation. Parents and guardians have the opportunity to opt-out children from wearing a face covering by contacting me and requesting the opt-out.”

Consistent with the new SDIRC policy, Principal Finnegan said opt-outs would only be allowed with either a doctor’s documentation that the student should not be wearing a mask, or by providing evidence of a disabling condition that impacts the wearing of a mask.

Beachland Elementary offered free breakfast and lunch for the students. Meals were distributed on Mon., Aug. 30 and Wed., Sept. 1 at the school, with students receiving meals on Monday for both Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

View the SDIRC Aug. 24 meeting including parent comments at https://youtu.be/ZKgeZJs30zY.

To view updated numbers of COVID positive cases per school, visit www.indianriverschools.org, then click on View SDIRC COVID Dashboard.

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