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BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN PROTESTING — A small group of anti-mask protesters, including Jennifer Dickinson, Stephanie Michelle and Jenifer Kelly, pictured, stand outside the Volusia County School Board meeting Aug. 10 with signs decrying mask mandates.. People for and against masks spoke at the Aug. 10 meeting, the last meeting before the school year begins Aug. 16.

Volusia County will not be one of the school districts in Florida to mandate masks for students, although Superintendent Scott Fritz “strongly recommends” masks be worn. Fritz will, however, require adults in school buildings, including teachers, volunteers and other visitors, to wear a face covering for 30 days, through Sept. 11. 

As in many other school districts in Florida, Volusia County’s rising COVID-19 cases, especially among younger populations, have restarted a conversation many had hoped was over, only days before school is set to begin. 

This time, however, the district’s hands are tied by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting mask mandates in schools. 

So far, at least eight counties in Florida have chosen to defy the order, mandating masks with an option for parents to opt out, despite a clause in the executive order that could threaten their state funding. 

But defiance is not an option for Volusia County Schools, the district concluded at a regular School Board meeting August 10.

“The governor has put forth laws limiting our ability to mandate the masks …,” School Board Member Anita Burnette said. “I’m finding it difficult to go against those. While I see that masks are helpful — I do believe in the masks. I’m a medical professional and I do — I’m finding it difficult to go against the governor’s orders.”

The board had previously adopted a voluntary mask policy. At the time, they included a clause that the superintendent could alter the policy as he sees fit, if there was a substantial rise in COVID cases.

 “We’ve already given the superintendent the opportunity to bring this before us if there is a significant escalation,” Board Member Ruben Colón said. “I believe there has been a significant escalation.” 

Colón, who works as a respiratory therapist for AdventHealth, read aloud the latest statistics from the Florida Department of Health in Volusia County, which indicate that pediatric cases have surpassed January 2021 levels. 

“In July [2021], from ages 5-11, we had 489 children … from ages 12-18 we had 670,” Colón said.

“I would really like to mandate a mask for the health and welfare of all of the students, everyone. At the same time, how will we implement it?” Board Member Linda Cuthbert asked. “Whatever we decide, we’re going to anger and upset certain groups … So Dr. Fritz, what do you suggest we do?”

“You ask me where I stand. I make some very strong recommendations. I will consider my employees … The opt-out approach is the only one that I understand is really what we’re allowed to do,” Fritz responded. “There are two districts, I believe, that are challenging the governor. They would have to go to court to get that done and I don’t think that’s the right approach for us.”

Requiring masks, while maintaining a constantly updated opt-out list, would place a large burden on teachers and staff, Fritz said, and be nearly impossible to effectively enforce. 

The question about masks in schools has not actually been on the School Board agenda since May, but it clearly was on everyone’s minds at the Aug. 10 meeting. It has become a common occurrence at School Board meetings for people opposing masks to come and speak, whether masks are on the agenda or not.

Dozens of people spoke at this meeting. The majority were parents and students urging the board to require masks, while outside, a small group of maskless parents stood with signs protesting masks in schools.

One public speaker inside the meeting was Noa Dodge, a 13-year-old incoming high-school freshman who lives in New Smyrna Beach.

“If a mask mandate saves one kid from a life-changing side effect or worse, death, I think that would 100-percent be worth it,” Dodge said to the School Board. “The word ‘choice’ has been used a lot when talking about masks. But by making masks a choice for students, you are taking away my choice in the matter and forcing me to go to school in a potentially unsafe environment.”

BEACON PHOTO ELI WITEK
NEW YEAR AHEAD — Noa Dodge, a 13-year-old Volusia County student, spoke in favor of masks at a School Board meeting Aug. 10. “I sincerely hope that hearing from a young person like myself will help you make this crucial decision,” Dodge said. “Please don’t let this be a political decision; listen to the science.”
“We have the rights to both life and liberty, but which is more important?” she concluded.

Epidemiologists Drs. Allen and Asal Johnson of DeLand also urged the School Board to implement the mask mandate that was in place last year. The Johnsons have two children in Volusia County Schools, they said, one of whom is still too young to be vaccinated.

“This sucks. Nobody likes where we’re at, me as much as anybody,” Allen Johnson said. “But that’s the circumstance we’re in, and none of us asked for it.”

Alycia Severson, a Volusia County Schools teacher and parent, also cited the success of the previous school year and urged the School Board to consider an emergency mask mandate.

“It worked to scatter students across platforms, and wear masks, and sanitize, and limit seating and do all the other exhausting gazillion things we did. It worked,” she said. “But pretending we can be normal this year will not work. It won’t.”

The School Board heard from parents, teachers, students and doctors, many of whom urged the School Board to take action and mandate masks for students and faculty. 

Some, too, praised the School Board’s earlier decision to leave the choice up to parents.

“America was the land of the free and home of the brave — now it’s stay at home because you’re afraid,” Chad McNaughton said. 

“Volusia County Schools should listen and trust their educators to make the right decision for their own body when it comes to wearing masks or not,” said Chris Cummings, whose wife is a teacher at Manatee Cove Elementary School in Orange City. “We are asking for this same choice for our students, for our teachers and our staff.”

Arguments for and against masks were met with applause from factions in the crowd attending the meeting. Periodically, delayed cheering could be heard outside from anti-mask protesters, who streamed the meeting on their phones. 

“We have to trust our parents to do what is best for their children,” Board Member Cuthbert concluded in the final minutes of the meeting. “As much as I would like to protect everyone, I think we have been put into a position where we are unable to. And it just tears me apart.”

Around the state, some counties will require masks

Alachua County Public Schools: Students will be required to wear masks for the first two weeks of school, while staff will be required to wear masks for the first 30 days of the school year. Parents have the option to opt their children out of the mask mandate, but only with a signed doctor’s note.

Broward County Public Schools: Masks will be mandatory for students until the superintendent determines face coverings are “no longer required.” Parents have the option to opt their children out of the mandate.

Duval County Public Schools: Face masks are required for Duval County’s students until the local Department of Health or other governing agency recommends otherwise, according to the school district’s website. Parents may opt their children out of the mask mandate.

Flagler Schools: Face coverings are optional for students and staff.

Hillsborough County Public Schools: Only three days before the start of school in Hillsborough, the school district reversed its decision to make masks voluntary. Now, parents must fill out an opt-out form. The mask requirement will continue until “at least September 3rd.”

Leon County Public Schools: Students will be required to wear masks until “at least the end of August,” according to a report from The Tallahassee Democrat. No opt-out option was available for students until just hours before schools opened their doors Aug. 11, The Democrat reported.

Orange County Public Schools: Masks are required for students and staff with an option to opt out of the mandate. The mandate is in effect for 30 days.

The School District of Palm Beach County: While masks were initially recommended but not required, Palm Beach County Superintendent Michael Burke changed course Aug. 7 and mandated masks for students. Parents may choose to opt their children out of the mandate.

Seminole County Public Schools: Masks are required for students with an option to opt out of the mandate. The mandate is in effect for 30 days.

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