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MaskUp Manatee Initiative hands out 11,000 masks to schools hit hardest by COVID-19

Social distancing is expected to be near impossible in Manatee schools this second quarter, so are face masks enough?

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Since the start of the school year, the Manatee County School District has reported 113 positive COVID-19 cases within its schools.

In Sarasota County, the district opened its schools a couple of weeks after Manatee, but its COVID-19 dashboard shows a much higher count of cases. 

Sarasota has reported 1,176 total positive cases so far.

Manatee Schools Superintendent Cynthia Saunders contributes their low case count heavily on their strict mask policy.

“We think they are very vital,” Saunders said. “Right now, the CDC does recommend, especially if you cannot socially distance, that masks are a form of protection."

RELATED: Here's where COVID-19 cases have been reported in Tampa Bay schools

The district does not allow any masks with vents, bandanas or neck gaiters. It must be a cloth mask.

Saunders says masks are going to be even more critical with more students returning to campus this second quarter.

“Infectious disease experts said that this is necessary,” school board member Charlie Kennedy said. “It’s the cheapest, easiest, most effective mitigation technique that we have.”

“I think our numbers prove the mask mandate works,” he said.

That’s why the school district, the county and the health department teamed up to create the Mask Up Manatee initiative.

This initiative brought together government agencies, businesses, medical providers and non-profit organizations in the area to fight together against the spread of COVID-19.

“I am super impressed with what the school district has been doing,” County Administrator Cheri Coryea said. “They have a special protocol in each class, they know the seating charts, they have a protocol for when the students come in and the masks just help protect them beyond what that initial physical protocol is.”

On Friday, the coalition stopped by several Title I elementary schools to deliver 11,000 masks.

“Most of them are child masks which are more suited for elementary faces and that’s where we have our largest concentration, our elementary schools,” Saunders said.

The masks are a fun color with a bunch of manatees on them to represent the county.

“We want to make sure that all those in need are prepared and have all the precautions,” Saunders said.

The district has been transparent on the difficulty they will face this second quarter to maintain social distancing. The question is, are face masks going to be enough?

“I do think so based on the CDC guidelines,” Saunders said. “But that’s not the only thing.”

Saunders says they have to continue enforcing all safety protocols in schools to mitigate the spread, not just mask-wearing.

“Constant handwashing of course, and I think one of the most important things we can state is if your child or an employee does not feel well, it may not even be COVID, but if they do not feel well it’s important that they stay home because when they are at school they can impact other people even with a mask,” Saunders said.

Health experts say the time spent in close quarters plays a big factor as well. Experts say the risk is low in the hallways of schools, but higher in a classroom where that potential exposure increases. Any time you are in close quarters for 15 minutes or more with a positive case, you risk contracting the virus.

The district says it is working hard to keep class sizes to a minimum and continue using their desk shield for an extra layer of protection.

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