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Miami-Dade County Public Schools could ease its mask mandate by the end of the month because Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Wednesday local rates of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have declined significantly since the beginning of the academic year, as have the number of students needing to quarantine.
And, most people eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccination in the district have received at least one dose, he said.
Speaking at the School Board’s monthly meeting in downtown Miami, the superintendent said the district could make an announcement about easing the mask mandate by the end of the week or the beginning of next week. The decision will be based on when the latest COVID-19 data is released by the state Department of Health, which occurs on Fridays, and based on the advice of a task force of local doctors advising the district on its coronavirus policy.
“That will put us in a position of being able, with the wise counsel of our task force, of shifting from a mandatory masking protocol with medically endorsed accommodations, or for students with individual education plans, to, yes, a mandatory mask policy, but with an unrestricted parent opt-out provision,” he said.
The district initially intended on making masks optional for students and staff this school year, but it reversed course late in the summer before the start of school as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spread rapidly in South Florida, causing a spike in hospitalizations and deaths.
When announcing facial coverings would be mandatory, Carvalho promised that the policy would be reviewed on a weekly basis and possibly relaxed if conditions improved. He said it’s his view that masking as well as quarantine rules for those exposed to someone infected with COVID-19 have worked.
“We have lower positivity rates in our schools than in the surrounding community. We have never had the number of quarantined students that other districts in Florida much smaller than our district have had. In some cases, smaller districts than ours had 19% of their student population quarantined,” he told School Board members. “Our percentage of students who were ever quarantined at any point in time was always significantly lower than that.”
The district hit an all-time low last week for students required to quarantine — less than 1,000 children out of a total student population of 330,000, Carvalho said. He said the low rates have been due to the district’s COVID protocols, including mask mandates and quarantine policies.
“They [the district’s COVID policies] have worked because they have stayed the course. And, they have worked because they have been well-informed. They are not a matter of opinion; they’re a matter of expert recognition and advice,” he said.
The subject of masks took up a significant portion of the public comments during the school board meeting, with a vocal anti-mask crowd making their opinions known.
“There is nothing these children need to be protected from other than well-funded politicians using them [kids] as a virtue signaling prop and psychological experiments,” said Rose Henderson, who said she was a parent but did not indicate whether she had children in Miami-Dade Public Schools.
District’s 7 criteria before relaxing mask mandate
The district established seven criteria in the beginning of the school year that must be met before the relaxation of the mask mandate could be considered.
The first was two consecutive weeks of a seven-day average of COVID-19 cases below 100 per 100,000 people.
“I thought actually that this metric would have been met last week. And, it was not met by 3.9 points. I am absolutely certain, based on the information that continues to be provided to us, that this Friday, Oct. 22, considering the trend line, that that metric will be below 100,” Carvalho said.
Two weeks ago, the rate was about 700 cases per 100,000. “So, we saw a steep incline, and we’re seeing a very rapid decline, he said.
The second goal was to have at least 80% of eligible school age children between the ages of 12 and 18 receive at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Not only has that threshold has been met, but 60% are fully vaccinated, Carvalho said.
“These are exceedingly high percentages compared to Florida and compared to national data,” he said.
In May, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children 12 to 15 years old; in December 2020, the agency had authorized emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine to those 16 and older.
Next, the district wanted to see local hospital admissions for COVID patients be less than 100 for two weeks.
“This metric too is currently being met,” he said.
The fourth criteria, which Carvalho said is also being met, is that fewer than 15% of Miami-Dade hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients.
Fifth is that student quarantines due to COVID-19 exposure in school remain below 1.5% for two consecutive weeks. This is happening now, and has been for more than a month, Carvalho said.
Next, involves new case positivity rates declining for two consecutive weeks in Miami-Dade County. The trend is happening and the positivity rate is now below 4%, the superintendent said.
Finally, daily student cases must show a decline for two consecutive weeks, another metric that is occurring, Carvalho said.
The peak was Sept. 8 when there were 327 new daily student cases. Over the past two weeks, there were fewer than 50 per day, he noted.
“It’s just a recognition that the trend line is very positive in all respects,” Carvalho said.