Pinellas School Board votes down option to institute mask mandate

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Masks will remain optional in Pinellas County Schools.

The Pinellas School Board Tuesday voted against holding a special meeting to discuss instituting a mask mandate.

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School board member Caprice Edmond motioned to call the special meeting.

“I am asking the board to take a vote today to hold a special meeting by Friday, August, 27 to implement a 90-day emergency mask policy,” she said. “Reviewing it every 30 days, similar to the emergency policy implemented last year. And challenging the rule of the Department of Health.”

Masks aren’t required in Pinellas Schools but are strongly recommended. And with a 4-3 vote, board members decided that’s the way it will stay.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late July updated its guidance on masking in schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC now suggests everyone – student, faculty and teacher – wear masks even if they are vaccinated. The delta variant of COVID-19 has caused massive spikes in hospitalizations and new daily cases. And it’s sending children to the hospital more.

Surpassing semesters

During all of last fall’s semester, Pinellas had fewer than 700 confirmed COVID cases among children. In less than two weeks this semester, there have been nearly 800 cases among students. As of Tuesday, nearly 3,000 students and faculty from the District were quarantined due to COVID exposure.

Edmond said that’s why a mandate should be in place. Even if the Governor doesn’t agree.

“We have a duty to provide a safe learning environment for all of our students,” Edmond said. “We have to keep our staff safe. If the community cases are high and that’s impacting our classrooms, we have to do everything we possibly can to ensure people are safe. And if that’s implementing a mask mandate, I think that’s the right choice.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order railing against mask mandates and promising to punish any school district that attempted to mandate masks shortly after the CDC guidelines came out. But leading health experts including the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend adhering to the guidelines. Especially because masks help prevent the wearer from spreading, not just contracting the virus.

Anti-mask parents at the Aug. 24, 2021 Pinellas School Board meeting. Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

The order led to an emergency rule from the Health Department saying schools could mandate masks with an opt-out for parents. Some school boards have been defiant. Florida’s largest districts including, Miami-Dade; Broward; and Hillsborough have instituted mask mandates with strict if any, opt-out. Some districts, like Hillsborough, make the argument that a medical opt-out puts them in compliance with the emergency rule.

The state Board of Education hasn’t agreed. It’s also threatened to punish districts that implement mandates.

To meet or not to meet

Pinellas made its decision after an emotional day. Pro and anti-mask activists gathered outside two hours before the 10 a.m. meeting waving signs. The two groups clashed but remained civil. Police reported no incidents or arrests.

One arrest, however, was made inside.

Board members listened to comment from 99 people for nearly four hours before voting down Edmond’s motion.

One man, Glenn Riesling, said a mask mandate would be like child abuse.

“What evidence do you all have in support of? Not Just ‘we just follow CDC guidelines’ or whatever,” Riesling asked the board. “The actual evidence. Where’s the science, where’s the evidence? And if you can’t produce the evidence how is this not contemplating continuing child abuse.”

Riesling was asked to stay on topic during public comment, then asked to leave. He was arrested by school resource officers when he refused to comply with either order.

Glenn Riesling is arrested during the Aug. 24, 2021 Pinellas School Board meeting. Daniel Figueroa IV/WMNF

Many of the speakers with children in Pinellas schools were also doctors. All, including family physician Hajar Kadivar, agreed that a mask mandate should be in place.

“We are in a medical and public health crisis. Both adult and pediatric hospitals are overrun with COVID patients. Last week I admitted a patient to hospice because of this,” Kadivar said. “We need the opportunity to discuss all the measures afforded to us to help limit the spread of COVID for the health our entire community.”