Signaling the long discussion about masking in schools that was to come in the Aug. 10 board meeting, Monroe County School Superintendent Theresa Axford began the topic by describing a phone call she and other Florida superintendents participated in the previous day with Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Noting that DeSantis had discussed the efficacy of mask wearing by citing a Wall Street Journal article, she said, “To say this is a heated issue throughout the state is an understatement.”
And so the meeting began, which saw at least a half-dozen emotional public speakers expressing their opinion — both pro and con — about a mask mandate, as well as board members under pressure to explain their thought processes before they voted and an impassioned plea from well-known pediatrician Stan Zuba to “defy the governor.”
In the end, the board unanimously approved a mask mandate for anyone on school property. An opt-out option will be made available for parents who sign an official document, a disclaimer prepared by the legal department.
By signing, parents will acknowledge that their decision is in direct opposition to the strong recommendations of the Monroe County Health Department and the school board.
At the beginning of the meeting, Bob Eadie, administrator and health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, gave his thoughts on protecting children from COVID.
“Fortunately, we are now able to vaccinate 12-year-olds and up. Any recommendation I have is for all of us to push for vaccinations as far as we can,” said Eadie. “For the last 10 days, we’ve had 575 positive cases of COVID recorded for Monroe County. Eighty-four of those were 18 and under, which is 14.5 percent of those numbers. And if we go back to January, we only had 9.2 percent that were positive under 18 years old.”
Eadie also pointed out the breakdown geographically of the positive cases over the past 10 days: 53% were in the Upper Keys, 14% were in the Middle Keys, and 33% in the Lower Keys. This marks a shift from the early days of the pandemic, when Key West typically saw the highest percentage of cases.
Eadie recommended vaccinations for everyone 12 and older, but also suggested that all students, teachers and staff should be masked on school property, but with the provision that parents can opt out. He said he wouldn’t recommend getting into a confrontation with parents over masking.
“I think it’s counterproductive,” Eadie said. “Just acknowledge the world as it is. You can’t mandate masks.”
A group of public speakers expressed their opinion both by phone and in person about a mask mandate.
Key Largo’s Herve Pullar is a clinical laboratory scientist in Monroe County who performs antigen tests for COVID, and he has seen an increase in positive test results for children. He also has a 5-year-old daughter in the school system.
“I’m urging the board to mandate masks for the school year,” he said. “The Delta strain is much more virulent and infectious” than the strain from last year.
Parent Melissa Ptomey said, “Parents want to be able to feel like their kids can be kids again, not be prisoners in their own schools. … These young children are learning that their fellow humans can’t be trusted.”
Nick Rodriguez of Key Largo is a parent of two Monroe County students and a husband of a Monroe County teacher. He supports a mask mandate. “Today is the day for the school board to decide for the safety of students and side with science,” he said.
Cudjoe Key resident Cindy Dreson said, “I was more than a little upset about Bob (Eadie) advising to have the children vaccinated and wear masks. For one thing, this is an experimental vaccine. We don’t know what the outcome is in seven or eight years. We don’t know if these kids will end up sterilized. … More people die on U.S. 1 every year than will ever die of COVID.”
(Editor’s note: Twelve people died in Monroe County crashes in 2020, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The final 2020 report by the local health department, issued on Dec. 30, 2020, showed 35 deaths from COVID. More than 600,000 people in the U.S. and 4.3 million worldwide have died of COVID, according to the World Health Organization.)
“I’ve seen more COVID cases in children than in the entire first year of the pandemic,” proclaimed pediatrician Stan Zuba. “I urge you to go against this governor and care about our children. … Every hospital in Baptist is overflowing with COVID cases right now. Take a stand and call his bluff.”
In the end, the decision came down to the four school board members who were present: John Dick, Bobby Highsmith, Sue Woltanski and Andy Griffiths (Mindy Conn was not in attendance).
Woltanski said, “I think my perspective is different because I’m a pediatrician and my husband works in the emergency room. … It’s disappointing to me we don’t have a robust virtual option for parents.”
“I am disappointed to see national political type issues drawn into this discussion,” said Highsmith. “A lot of the tenor of emails said, ‘If you don’t agree with me, it’s politics.’ I’ve studied, and I looked for science and data. … Covid is here. It’s not going anywhere.”
As the members started to agree on a mask mandate with an opt-out for parents, Griffiths pushed for a limited liability waiver that should be signed.
“At least they’ll read some facts and information,” he said.
Woltanski said she was concerned that an opportunity has been missed for messaging, since students have already met their teachers for the new year and were not advised by the district to wear masks.
“The horse has left the barn,” she said.
Dick responded, “I think the horse that got out of the barn is called freedom.”
With their unanimous vote to support a mask mandate for students, teachers and staff on school property, as well as a signed disclaimer from parents who want to opt out, Axford said the district would have to act fast to spread the news before school starts on Thursday, Aug. 12.
On August 11, Axford released a statement which includes the following: “…effective immediately, facial coverings will be required for everyone inside Monroe County schools and on buses for the next two weeks. The status of the virus will be reexamined on August 24th and every school board meeting thereafter. Parents and guardians may choose to opt-out of this requirement. To do so, they can visit the district webpage and fill out the opt out form which is placed on our Covid Resources page. This form will be available after 4:00 p.m. today. District staff must wear a facial covering indoors and on district transportation with no option of opting out.
“Visitors will not be allowed on district property for the first two weeks of school unless otherwise coordinated through school administration.
“We will continue to work closely with the medical community to monitor the level of infection in our county. We will revisit this issue at each school board meeting and may make changes as the situation requires it.”