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Bay District Schools' Employees, Visitors Must Wear Masks

 Bay District Schools' Superintendent Bill Husfelt gives parents an update about the district's COVID-19 protocol in a live-stream video posted to the school district's website on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021.
Bay District Schools
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Bay District Schools' Superintendent Bill Husfelt gives parents an update about the district's COVID-19 protocol in a live-stream video posted to the school district's website on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021.

Bay County teachers, school staff and visitors must wear masks for the first two weeks of school, as local coronavirus cases surge and local hospitals run out of beds.

"It’s essential that we require all of our employees to wear masks when social distancing is not possible," said Bay District Schools' Superintendent Bill Husfelt. "We did not want to require masks of anybody."

Husfelt sent a letter to parents and district employees on Sunday explaining the new policy, which takes effect on the first day of school on Tuesday, Aug. 10. In the letter, he urged parents to send their children to school wearing masks.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently issued an executive order threatening to withhold funding from school districts that force students to wear masks. Several districts are considering or have already put in place mask requirements for students — including Leon County Schools — despite the order.

Husfelt has also notified parents that if they're concerned about the risk of their child becoming infected with COVID-19 at school, they have until Monday, Aug. 16 to discuss with their child's principal whether they'd like to enroll them in Bay Virtual Schools or homeschooling.

As of July 29th, most of the county's hospital beds were filled, according to data sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Gulf Coast Regional Hospital reported it had 24 inpatient beds and seven intensive care unit beds available that week. And Ascension Sacred Hearth Hospital reported it had more admitted more patients than beds available.

Vaccinations haven't kept up with a recent local surge in cases. Between July 30 — Aug. 5, the county reported 1,615 new infections and a 30% new case positivity rate to the Florida Department of Health. The majority of residents over 12 years old — 56% — aren't fully vaccinated, according to DOH. At least half of them had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 shot, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Husfelt says he got the COVID-19 vaccine in the spring. "I’m very confident in the vaccine," Husfelt said. "You just look at the numbers in the hospital and the trends of those vaccinated versus not vaccinated."

And he says he's encouraging others to get vaccinated. "This whole thing has become ridiculously political," Husfelt said. "I remember over a year ago when we all couldn’t wait until we got the vaccine, and then we wanted to start arguing about it after we got the vaccine.”

Doctors treating COVID-19 patients across the state have said the vast majority of those who admitted to the hospital weren't fully vaccinated.

Last year's contact tracing and quarantining procedures will continue this year in partnership with the local health department, Husfelt said.

While the district has no plans for classroom teachers to offer virtual instruction, temporary school closures are possible, Husfelt said. "We're going to take it on a school-by-school basis." He doesn't think the local board of education would consider a districtwide closure unless the health department recommends it, he said. "But I don't see the health department doing that."

The Margaret K. Lewis School for students with disabilities in Panama City will reopen a week later than scheduled because too many staff are quarantining at home.

"They just don't have the staff," he said. "The quarantining has hit a few of our schools very hard."

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.