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BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN MASKED UP — Volusia County School Board Member Linda Cuthbert, fourth from left, is the only one wearing a mask as she joins other officials in July at a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the opening of a learning center at Pine Ridge High School in Deltona where students can study for careers in the air conditioning, heating and ventilation industry. With Cuthbert, from left, are Bree Castelli, coordinator of career and technical education for Volusia County Schools, state Rep. Webster Barnaby (R-District 27), School Superintendent Dr. Ronald “Scott” Fritz, and state Sen. Tom Wright (R-District 14).

Editor’s note: This commentary by Volusia County School Board Chairman Linda Cuthbert is excerpted from her remarks at the Sept. 14 School Board meeting, before passing the gavel and moving to rescind the school system’s mask mandate, which had allowed only medical opt-outs, and to replace it with a policy requiring masks but allowing a parental opt-out. Her motion was passed by the School Board with a 3-2 vote. Members Jamie Haynes and Anita Burnette joined Cuthbert to vote in favor of rescinding the mandate; Members Ruben Colón and Carl Persis voted against.

As of Oct. 1, according to the school system, 9,509 out of the district’s 60,000-plus students had been opted out of the mask requirement.

Cuthbert’s remarks have been lightly edited for this format.

LINDA CUTHBERT

We all have opinions, and I have one, as well. All duly elected School Board members representing the five districts in Volusia County here tonight have one clear goal in common, and that is that our students deserve to have access to and graduate from a first-class public education system, so they can successfully graduate, to not only meet the demand for the diverse society but to excel in that diverse society.

Each member’s background, experiences and beliefs are unique. We’re a diverse group, yes, but our diversity is the foundation of our democracy.

Different views are welcomed at our dais, which, when reasoned through reasoned discourse, solutions can be found.

We all want to be good stewards of the law, but our children should not be utilized as pawns to prove a political point, no matter what that point is.

There was a student walkout planned for last week, and widely publicized on social media and in parent-run school forums. Our students were instructed to leave their classes in protest of the requirement to wear a mask.

Was it only just a few years ago that parents objected to students requesting 15 minutes at the flagpole to honor their peers and educators who died on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School?

Students have been encouraged to wear shirts that protest masks and that encourage adverse confrontational dialogue. Principals are being verbally accosted by parents who threaten suit if we even dare hand out a mask to a student who asks for one.

Teachers and administrative staff at several of our schools are receiving emails threatening that lawsuits will be filed if they endorse the wearing of a face covering in our classrooms.

Our campuses are not to be used as places of contention. They are sacred ground. They are safe learning environments for all. They are for the gifted and for the ungifted. They are for the advantaged and the disadvantaged. They are for the weak and the strong.

I believe face coverings prevent the spread of disease. That is my personal belief. We wear masks to protect the vulnerable.

My freedom is not absolute when it comes to the welfare of the general public — which is why I stop at red lights. What has happened to our kindness, to our understanding of the plight of others, to the respect we show our elders, our teachers, our leaders? What are we teaching our children about bullying?

Now bullying is on full display.

It’s very much OK to voice opposition. It’s one’s undeniable right to practice peaceful civil disobedience.

A week or two ago, we adopted a temporary emergency policy designed to help stop the spread of the coronavirus delta variant in our schools.

We wanted to see if this could reduce our student staff absences, thus making inroads against learning loss, and calm parents’ fears about sending unvaccinated children to school. We wanted to lessen the bullying school personnel have witnessed daily, of unmasked kids taunting masked kids.

We want to increase normalcy. We want students to be able to have a prom this year. We want our students to be able to graduate at the Ocean Center without restrictions.

Our aim was for everyone to come together to bite the bullet for a short period of time, to see if our sacrifice would be of any help.

Now the data has been tampered with. Questionable medical opt-outs have been written. There has been vitriol from some of our stakeholders and aggression on our campuses.

To honor and protect our campuses, to rid them of this bullying that I personally see — because our campuses need to be safe learning environments, free from contention — I’m pleased to make a motion that we rescind our emergency mandate and do a parent opt-out.

— Cuthbert represents District 3, Southeast Volusia, on the School Board.

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