Brevard students returned to school Tuesday while their parents will be returning to the warpath over the district’s long-debated mask policy, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
School officials have billed this year, which begins Tuesday as a “return to normal” in many ways for students. With some limitations, field trips will resume and volunteers will return. The district’s eLearning option, which allowed students to follow along in class in real time, has been discontinued. Students wishing to learn from home during the pandemic must enroll in Brevard Virtual School or Florida Virtual School. And most controversially, no mask requirement is in place — the district’s policy was rescinded at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.
While many celebrate a return to normalcy for the district’s over 70,000 students, others fear the loosening of restrictions will allow COVID-19 to spread unmitigated through the schools and homes, causing cases to surge further. Children under 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine.
The district resumed publishing its COVID-19 dashboard detailing cases in schools last week. It had stopped publishing the numbers during the summer. From Aug. 2-5, 153 positive cases were reported to the district, 58 of them employees and 95 of them students. BPS Spokesman Russell Bruhn said the data comes from the Florida Department of Health, and it’s not clear how many of those employees or students were involved in school-related activities when they were diagnosed.
Though children have so far seemed resilient against COVID-19, they still have the power to infect vulnerable adults around them, and hospitals say that COVID-19 is hospitalizing more younger patients than last year as the more contagious Delta variant spreads. As of the first week of August 2021, an average of 49 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 each day, far higher than early August 2020′s average of 11 admissions per day.
As the state’s surge surpasses previous record case counts in January, many school districts considered reinstating mask requirements. Several will mandate masks except for students whose parents sign an opt-out form.
Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold funding for schools that require masks for children in an executive order issued July 27. The Florida Department of Health later issued a rule requiring schools to allow students to opt out of mask mandates by notifying their child’s school.
It’s not clear whether the executive order will withstand the legal challenges against it. Two lawsuits have been filed against DeSantis’ executive order by parents of disabled students who say their children are being deprived of safe access to education.
The state Board of Education has also expanded the state’s Hope Scholarship, which offers school vouchers for students who have been bullied in public schools, to include students “harassed” by their school’s COVID-19 policies.
School Board will discuss potential mask policy
At a Tuesday board meeting, the School Board will discuss its own potential mask policy. Board member Jennifer Jenkins put the matter on Tuesday’s agenda after her calls for a special meeting on mask mandates failed to gain support from other board members at a July 29 meeting.
Jenkins said a mask policy allowing parents to opt out would be “better than nothing,” but still wants to reinstate the mask policy that existed last year.
“People think I’m insane, but I absolutely think it’s going to be a 5-0 vote in favor,” Jenkins said. “All of the excuses that (other board members) tried to dig into really, really hard last time don’t exist anymore, so I don’t know what they can come up with to defend a ‘no’ vote at this point.”
Board Chair Misty Belford said the governor’s executive order states that he could withhold state funding from school districts that do not include an opt-out for parents. Board Vice Chair Matt Susin said regardless of the governor’s order, there is “not a bone in his body” in favor of a policy without an opt out.
Parents wish for board to consider mask requirement
Some parents plan to challenge the board to consider a mask requirement at Tuesday’s meeting. Two community organizations, Families for Safe Schools and Standing Heroes for Average Workers, will hold a press conference at 4 p.m. outside the school board building.
Elizabeth Logan, an advanced registered nurse practitioner, who previously worked in critical care medicine and pulmonology, said she has close contact with former coworkers and knows the situation inside hospitals is quickly growing dire.
“It’s just getting worse every day, and with school opening, not only is there potential for kids to get sick and be hospitalized, but the potential for them to bring it home to their unvaccinated parents or neighbors is extremely high,” Logan said.
Logan said she considers parents who argue that their children’s mask wearing is their own decision to be “incredibly selfish.”
“The best way to mitigate disease, outside of vaccination … is through the universal masking,” Logan said. “My mask protects you, your mask protects me. So, just because I’m wearing a mask doesn’t mean that if I’m sitting next to someone who is COVID positive and coughing I will not get it.”
Logan said she doesn’t expect the board to actually vote to require masks but has to do something.
“We can’t just sit back and allow it to happen,” Logan said. “It has the possibility of completely collapsing our hospital systems, and I’m not necessarily saying that because our kids are going to get sick, but because our community will get sick.”
Moms for Liberty will hold protest opposing mask requirements
Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent group that has staunchly opposed mask requirements since the beginning of the pandemic, will hold a protest at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Brevard chapter president Ashley Hall said.
Hall said she is gladdened by the governor’s executive order and the FDOH rule requiring an opt-out, but that she would like to see employees given an option to choose not to wear masks as well. Hall said she will be “very upset” if the board chooses to instate a masking policy.
“It’s clear the way the direction that the governor wants the state to go,” Hall said. “Parents should have always had the choice. It’s a medical decision to cover one’s face.”
Should the board vote to require masks, “I don’t really know what the next step will be,” Hall said. “We’re just waiting to see what they do.”