Ocean Dillon demonstrates the school district's mask mandate that includes a parental opt-out. BRITT MYERS/Keys Weekly

At first, the Sept. 21 Monroe County School Board meeting was deceptively “normal,” like it was before the pandemic. There were no updates from the health department about rising Covid numbers. No long line of members of the public itching to sound off about the current mask mandate with parental opt-out (okay, there were five public speakers about masks). District staff presented news about a May 23 construction completion date for Sugarloaf Elementary school and raises for non-union staff. But then…

The time came for the board members to speak freely during the Report section of the meeting. And the members got a bit testy.

Board member Mindy Conn asked permission from the legal department to speak directly to fellow board member Sue Woltanski. The permission was granted, and Conn turned to Woltanski and spoke.

“Last night I had a constituent come up to me and they were very upset because they feel like the school board’s doing a really good job, and they heard you on the radio saying you were disappointed with your fellow school board members and their decision making,” Conn said. “And I have to say that I’m disappointed that you’re bringing your personal politics to school board meetings.”

At the Sept. 7 board meeting, Conn said that the continuous harping on masking had become political. At that same meeting, Woltanski had fought for going against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order protecting a parent’s right to decide about masks, and she made a motion for everyone to wear facial covering indoors, with an opt-out by medical necessity only, due to “our status being extremely high.” No board member seconded her motion.

Back at the Sept. 21 meeting, the board moved on to discuss the mask mandate. In previous meetings, since positive Covid cases were rising in the county in August, the board decided to revisit the mask mandate for teachers, staff and children, with parental opt-out, every two weeks.

Board chairman John Dick said that since positive Covid cases were going down in the county, he felt the board should no longer revisit the mask mandate every two weeks. He suggested just keeping the current policy with a parental opt-out as it is and discussing it when “we determine it’s necessary.” 

“Some of the people think the board is doing a political maneuver and they’re not thinking about the children. Well, quite frankly, I think it’s quite the opposite,” Dick said. 

He agreed with Conn that recent discussions had leaned too heavily on masking and as an example stated that England has decided to stop masking in schools. Instead, the country’s children are tested at home two or three times a week.

“It seems like I’m the only person in the world that knows that Florida was given two thirds of a billion dollars to do (Covid testing),” he said. “Where the money is, no one seems to know. You can’t get a straight answer. I think a lot of the reason why it’s not happening is they want to keep doing this mask challenge. … It’s all political.”

“I don’t believe the comments earlier reflect what I said on the radio yesterday,” Woltanski said in retort to Conn. “I understand my role as a school board member that when we agree to something that I stick to it. And that is what I said at the school board. Of course, I proposed something because I hoped it would be considered. And if someone recognized my disappointment in that, that’s fine, but I did clearly state that I would follow what the board decides.”

In the end, Dick made a motion to keep the mask mandate with parental opt-out and only bring it back to discuss if it is needed, rather than every two weeks. The motion was seconded by Conn. The motion passed 4 to 1, with board member Andy Griffiths voting against.

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.