The Volusia County School Board had already agreed to make masks optional for the 2021-22 school year, but a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations — plus new guidance from the CDC recommending that schoolchildren wear masks — had the Volusia County School Board on edge at a meeting July 27, just two weeks before school is back in session.
Board members had expected only to hear an update on local health data from Volusia County Department of Health Administrator Patricia Boswell, but after Boswell’s presentation, Board Member Jamie Haynes tore into the DOH numbers, at one point passionately arguing that “people lose their lives everyday.”
“I have a lot of questions for you, so I apologize,” Haynes said, before talking for roughly 20 minutes.
What followed was a long monologue, ranging from numbers of children who die from pneumonia to remarks about high-schoolers kissing, sprinkled with rhetorical questions to Boswell and the presentation of data Haynes claimed was shown to her by local researchers who have studied COVID-19 since February 2019.
COVID-19 by the numbers
3,095 — cases in children between the ages of 5 and 14 in Volusia County since the start of the pandemic.
820 — school-age cases reported in the month of July in Volusia County.
75 percent — percent increase in cases in the last seven days in Volusia County.
In general, Haynes implied that the Department of Health has exaggerated the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, and alleged that the vaccine is being oversold.
While Haynes didn’t name her sources, she told Boswell that, having seen her parents battle COVID-19, she confidently believes that having the novel coronavirus is a better deterrent than vaccination, especially for children, who are unlikely to become seriously ill.
“If you’ve already had COVID, you’re truly in better shape than anybody else because you’ve got antibodies,” Haynes said.
“Except for the 907 individuals who lost their lives,” Boswell replied.
“I don’t want anyone to lose their life, but the reality is, every day, someone loses their life,” Haynes said.
When Haynes concluded, she was met with applause from some of the crowd attending the meeting at the Volusia County Schools administration center. That prompted a swift gaveling from Chair Linda Cuthbert.
“There will be no clapping and there is no response,” she said. “This is the School Board’s meeting; it is not yours.”
There was a shout or two back, but Cuthbert reminded the audience that while meetings have to take place in Florida’s “sunshine,” with the public able to observe, the elected officials do not have to allow audience outbursts.
No other board members reacted to Haynes’ monologue.
As the School Board meeting wound down, Superintendent Scott Fritz expressed some disappointment about the discussion.
Fritz said he had hoped the School Board would talk about possible ways of handling infection scenarios presented by the DOH, or other policies to ensure students and faculty stay safe, once school starts Monday, Aug. 16.
Boswell explained to The Beacon, for instance, that the CDC definition of “close contact” is different when students are engaged in proper mask-wearing.
For example, an infected student wearing a mask may not need to be sent home after being exposed to a COVID-19-positive person, but unmasked students who come into contact with a case may need to be sent home.
These are some of the challenges the School Board is facing going into the new school year, Fritz said.
Crushed between a rock and a hard place represented by the State Department of Education, on one side, and the State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the other, Fritz said he had hoped for better guidance.
“We’re getting messages from the Department of Education to open things up, and then you have the Department of Health coming along and saying ‘close things down,’” he said. “We’re very candid that that puts school boards and superintendents in a very difficult situation.”
No further decisions were made about masks or other COVID-19 mitigation measures at the School Board meeting July 27.
The target keeps moving
“As this new school year begins, there needs to be a continued focus on keeping students safe, since not all students will be eligible to be vaccinated before school starts,” Boswell told the School Board. “Variants have emerged that are increasing the risk of transmission, and results in worsening illness to our younger people.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boswell said, Volusia County has had 51,812 reported cases of the virus and 907 deaths, including four people in their “early 20s.”
One concern of Boswell’s, she told the School Board, is the presence locally of the more-transmissible delta variant of COVID-19. This variant spreads faster and, Boswell said, is infecting more young people.
There have been 3,095 Volusia County cases since the start of the pandemic in children between the ages of 5 and 14, she said. “We are seeing increased infection among our youngest; 820 school-age cases have been reported to us [in Volusia County] so far in the month of July.”
“As of where we’re at right now,” Superintendent Fritz told the School Board, “I will reassure principals tomorrow that the safety supplies will be at their schools for when all teachers come back. There will be some type of contact-tracing, and as we get closer to it, more details will come. That’s what I’m going to say at this point, because that’s what I’ve got.”