School Board passes emergency mask mandate with a 3-2 vote
Following five hours of debate on a campus packed with anti-mask mandate protesters encamped outside, the Volusia County School Board voted 3-2 Aug. 31 to require students to wear masks in school, unless they have a doctor’s excuse.
The face-covering mandate for K-12 students takes effect Sept. 7 and will last through Oct. 15. The week following Labor Day, Sept. 7-10, will be a grace period, when unmasked students without doctor’s notes will not face repercussions.
The School Board will take up the issue again Oct. 12 to decide whether the mandate will be extended.
Jamie Haynes, who represents DeLand-area District 1 on the School Board, was one of two who voted against the mandate. As she has in previous discussions, Haynes argued vehemently against requiring masks. She and School Board Member Anita Burnette were outvoted by School Board Members Ruben Colón, Carl Persis and Linda Cuthbert.
The decision came at an emergency meeting in the face of startlingly high numbers of school children who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Tensions were high. Officers from the DeLand Police Department ringed the campus as the debate continued inside the administration building, and the officers entered the School Board meeting room about 10:30 p.m., as the board neared a vote.
Screams of “No!” and “Freedom!” could be heard up until the meeting ended after 11 p.m. As the vote was made, protesters screaming “Shame on you” forced the board to pause to hear one another.
Volusia County Health Department Administrator Patricia Boswell brought the latest COVID-19 numbers to the School Board.
In the first two weeks of school, the number of students who tested positive for COVID-19 was nearly 10 times higher than the number of students who tested positive during the same period in 2020: from 87 positive cases to 824.
School is being disrupted as students and faculty come down with COVID-19. Some 1,300 students were quarantined as of Aug. 24 because of exposure to the virus.
A contingent of anti-mask-mandate protestors gathered for hours outside of the Volusia County Schools Administrative Complex in DeLand, where the School Board met to make a decision on requiring students across the county to wear masks in school.
Some held signs, some waved “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, some yelled chants such as “Fire Fritz,” “my body my choice,” and “freedom.” Several ordered pizza and ate it, seated in folding chairs under umbrellas. They were there for the duration.
The chants could be heard over the School Board discussion at times, as the door was opened to let in a series of public speakers. Repeated refrains of “We will not comply” and “Freedom” caused some citizen speakers and members of the School Board to falter.
“We are a divided board, we’re a divided county, state, nation, world and not just in this,” School Board Chair Linda Cuthbert said. “We have to somehow come together and do what’s best for our children.”
But what exactly would be best for children was the point of contention.
For Board Member Ruben Colón, who made the motion to require masks in schools, “best for children” meant reducing cases and lessening the need for students to quarantine.
“We are sending kids home for no reason,” Colón said. “If they are not in school, they are not learning.”
Inaction, some School Board Members argued, was irresponsible.
“Let’s look at the numbers; they’re way higher than they were last year,” Persis said. “Wearing a mask, to me, is a minor sacrifice for anyone to have to make.”
Volusia County Schools employees, adult volunteers and visitors are already required to wear masks through Sept. 11.
Over the course of two hours, some 40 speakers addressed the board, making many of the same arguments that have been made over and over during the course of the pandemic.
Eleven spoke in favor of mandating masks, while 29 spoke against it.
It seemed like deja vu to the School Board, too, as they jockeyed with the same decisions they had faced with last year: How long to mandate masks? How to enforce proper mask-wearing? What options to give parents for opting out?
But the question of legality was clearer at the Aug. 31 meeting than when the School Board last discussed masks Aug. 24.
Since that meeting, a Leon County Circuit Court judge ruled that Gov. Ron DeSantis had overstepped his bounds in prohibiting school boards across the state from mandating masks in schools. The state is appealing the ruling, but Volusia County School Board attorney Ted Doran said the Circuit Court’s decision was clear: Municipalities have the power to mandate masks if a local emergency necessitates it.