BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The Brevard County School Board made a face mask option a permanent part of its policy manual Tuesday, much to the anger of a group of parents that turned out to protest the move, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
The new policy — which codifies an emergency provisional rule passed by the board in August and set to expire early next month — extends the school district’s mask mandate indefinitely and grants the superintendent power to require masks in future outbreaks, subject to board approval.
There’s also a new provision that says face shields will no longer be allowed in addition to a mask or in lieu of a mask unless instruction requires the students and teachers to see each other’s faces.
School Board members defended the policy as critical to protect vulnerable staff at a time when positive test rates for COVID-19 continue to climb in the county. But not everyone at Tuesday’s board meeting agreed.
“I think they’re not listening to their parents that showed up in the room,” said mother of one, Ashley Hall.
Hall was among about a dozen parents and other residents who turned out against the policy, part of a growing and controversial anti-mask movement decrying such mandates in defiance of guidance from state and federal health agencies.
The group gathered outside School Board headquarters before the meeting to wave signs and rally against the move.
“We’re paying the school board’s salary, and we should have a choice whether or not we want our kids to wear a mask or not,” said another parent, Robin Weiss.
Hall said mask mandates and the rhetoric that has driven them into place in Brevard and across the country have whipped school districts into a panic and overridden common sense.
“We have kids that are playing outside (in masks). … If they’re playing their instrument, they cut a slit in the mask over their instrument. There are kids that are doing JROTC outside in the heat with heavy masks on their face,” Hall said. “Our teachers have been so fearful to let kids even take off their masks (that) it’s going down to the kids. It’s making them fearful.”
Despite evidence on the effectiveness of masks in controlling the spread of the virus from health experts and government agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health, anti-mask sentiments have steadily risen in recent months.
An analysis by The New York Times showed membership in anti-mask Facebook groups soared over 1,800% from August to September. Hall’s own group, “Brevard County Parents for Freedom of Choice,” has acquired more than 700 members in a little less than three weeks.
Commenters say the masks have had a range of detrimental side effects on their kids, from exacerbating heat stress, to promoting acne and bacterial infections. And here, as elsewhere, many argue requirements to wear masks infringe on their rights to make health choices for their children, amounting to a violation of civil liberties.
“As an individual, and being a free society, I’m responsible for me. I’m not responsible for the entire group,” Weiss said. “I’m responsible for me. You’re responsible for you.”
Prior to the vote, School Board members said the rising infection rates and the need to protect their staff, along with preventing further disruptions to a school year already shaken by school closures and widespread quarantines, were behind the measure.
Their argument was backed up by local health experts in written responses to board questions and a conference call during the meeting that some parents criticized for not including a pediatric specialist.
In response to a written question asking whether Brevard was ready to ease up on mask requirements and other safety measures, experts from Parrish Healthcare, the University of South Florida and the Florida Department of Health in Brevard County unanimously said no.
“In my opinion, now is not the time to relax any mitigation strategies with our typical peak flu season around the corner,” wrote Jason Salemi, a disease expert at the USF College of Public Health.
Apart from health concerns, School Board Vice Chair Matt Susin said the mask policy also would protect low-income students most at risk if an adult caregiver gets sick, save money on further health insurance claims and help retain an already tenuous workforce.
“We barely have enough bus drivers to actually run the buses that we have. We are very low on our teachers. We don’t have substitutes in every one of our schools,” Susin said. “If we decided to pull back the masks, we would see another mass exodus of some of those individuals.”
Board member Tina Descovich — in her final vote with the School Board before ceding her District 3 seat next month to Jennifer Jenkins, who defeated Descovich in the August primary — was the lone dissenting opinion in the 4-1 vote, suggesting high-risk teachers and students could be provided N95 masks, designed to protect the wearer.
“We’re allowing teachers to go around with shear (face coverings) … and we’re masking 40,000 healthy children because a teacher is potentially high-risk, when they can take charge of their own health and put on an N95,” Descovich said.
“Every single policy that … we as a team approved and put in place took into consideration every child,” she said. “This is the first policy I’ve seen the board put into place that does not do that.”