Pinellas School Board votes to continue mask mandate prompting backlash, arrest

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Pinellas County School Board on Nov. 10, 2020.

The Pinellas County School Board Tuesday voted to continue its COVID-19 mandatory mask policy. The decision came after hours of discussion and opposing public comments from parents and students. One parent was arrested during the meeting.

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For more than an hour, speakers — mostly parents — railed against the school district’s mandatory mask policy. Some, like Shawna Nelson, attacked the district and its board members for not listening to parents’ concerns or anti-mask evidence.

Are you listening?

“I started out my last speech to you two weeks ago and said: ‘If you need my sources, I am more than happy to provide them to you.’ Nobody reached out for those sources,” Nelson said. “Which really again makes me feel like you’re not really hearing us.”

Leading health experts, including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, maintain that mask-wearing is still one of the best ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19

Nelson said she pulled her child out of public school. So, too, did Debra Williams, who said the District’s policies were hurting students, teachers and parents alike.

“I want you to look me in the eyes, every single one you, and I want you to feel my pain,” Williams said. “Because I am bringing you that pain today. For our kids and for the teachers you are silencing.”

Williams, like many parents, said the policy equates to child abuse when children have underlying health concerns.

“You are abusing the children that have health conditions and medical conditions and can’t get a doctor’s note,” she said.

Exceptions

Pinellas Schools opened this year with a mandatory mask policy in place for faculty and students. Pinellas Schools attorney David Koperski said the only change from the original policy to the new vote was adding language to review the policy every three months instead of “as needed.”

The mask mandate requires students over the age of four and teachers to wear masks with certain exceptions. One of those exceptions, Koperski said, is if a student has a medical condition that’d prevent them from wearing a mask.

“And so we give you the form, you can have the form. You take it to your physician, get it filled out and bring it back,” he said. What we do not want is a simple prescription pad note that says no mask.”

No one who has brought in a completed form has been denied the exception, according to Health Services managing officer Sara O’Toole.

The curve

Some parents questioned the need for masks at all.

Shannon Brooks said:

“This is no longer about COVID. The curve has been flattened.”

According to the Florida Department of Health, the COVID-19 positivity has risen again to 6.2 percent. Most experts agree the virus isn’t in control until at least 14 days of sustained positivity rates of 5 percent or below.

Since Florida entered Phase 3 reopening in September, the daily number of positive cases has increased from about 16,000 new daily cases on Sept. 27 to about 34,000 on Nov. 1.

School Board chairperson Carol Cook assured the speakers she has looked at their sources.

“I have read each and every one of the e-mails that have come through,” she said.

She said the board takes into account their evidence. But also, that of the parents who send letters of support and the medical professionals the district has hired.

“We’re hearing from both sides,” Cook said. “What we need to do is look at the information that’s being brought from everybody who is contacting us as well as the medical professionals that we have relied heavily on and determine what we’re gonna do and how we’re gonna move forward.”

The vote

Board members voted 4-1 to approve the mandate with only Lisa Cane dissenting.

Cane asked if Pinellas County’s mandate to allow parents and guardians the option of making children wear masks contradicted the School District’s. Koperski said the County’s rules do not apply to the School District.

Board members also noted parental choice is part of the plan. Parents can send kids back to school and follow mask guidelines or participate in virtual, simultaneous learning or enroll in Pinellas Virtual School.

One member of the public, Kari Turner, was arrested in the lobby when they refused to wear a mask. Turner was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and battery on a law enforcement officer.

District superintendent Michael Grego said the District would do away with the mask policy as soon as it could.

“I’ll be the first one to run to you, not to walk, when I feel, and the medical profession feels, like we can do something different and still protect our students and our teachers and our support staff and our communities,” Grego said.

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