Kay Fields

Citing rising public concern about school safety as COVID numbers increase, Polk School Board Vice Chair Kay Field has called for the board to consider a 30-day mask requirement. She also says that her three requests to hold a special School Board meeting to discuss safety concerns have been ignored.

“I am calling on the Polk County School Board to convene to address this matter in a public meeting instead of sitting back in silence,” Fields said in a news release issued Thursday afternoon.

The Florida Department of Health has provided data showing that 413 Polk school students and 233 staff had tested positive for COVID-19, and 2,071 students and 185 staff members had been quarantined as Tuesday, according to Fields.

“These numbers have not been vetted by our staff,” she said. “They are working on verifying the data. I would imagine the numbers will be higher than reflected here.”

Most of the DOH numbers cited by Fields are higher than the totals reflected on the Polk County Public Schools online COVID-19 page. That page, which also includes school-by-school counts, reports these totals as of Tuesday:

  • Confirmed student cases: 138
  • Confirmed staff cases: 66
  • Unverified student cases: 205
  • Unverified staff cases: 62
  • Students quarantined: 2,191
  • Staff quarantined: 137

A special meeting, as requested by Fields, can be called by the School Board chair, the superintendent of schools or a majority of the seven-member School Board, according to The Ledger, which also reported that at least two of the School Board members feel a special meeting is unnecessary.

The School Board is scheduled to hold a work session at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday followed by a board meeting at 5 p.m. at the Jim Miles Professional Development Center at 4270 Wallace Road in Highland City.

If Fields convinces a majority of School Board members to require face masks, Polk would join several other, mostly urban Florida school districts that have done so: Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, which approved face-covering policies this week, and Broward and Alachua, which did so earlier.

The Florida Board of Education has threatened to penalize School Board members and superintendents in districts that require masks.

In addition, Gov. Ron DeSantis has forbidden school boards from imposing mask orders unless parents can easily opt out. A circuit judge in Tallahassee ruled Thursday that a parents’ lawsuit challenging that order can proceed to a three-day hearing next week on whether to block that order.

The five districts that are requiring masks are letting students opt out only for medical reasons, the Associated Press reports.

In her news release, Fields stressed the urgency of the situation: “Over the past 2 weeks I have heard from an increasing number of parents, employees, business and community leaders who are concerned that as our infection rates and incidences of serious illness increase that we are failing to act. It is my belief that a more purposeful and intentional effort to protect the lives of those we are responsible for demands our attention and consideration of requiring face coverings (masks) for the next 30 days or until the current state of emergency subsides.”

School Board Chairwoman Lori Cunningham has not responded to a LkldNow request for comment about Fields’ contention that her request for a special meeting has gone unanswered.

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Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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