Brevard County School Board votes to require masks for all students and staff

Policy requires doctor’s note to opt out

Brevard County School Board implements mandatory mask mandate
Brevard County School Board implements mandatory mask mandate

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The Brevard County School Board voted 3-2 to institute a 30-day mask policy at an emergency meeting Monday morning.

School Board members Jennifer Jenkins and Cheryl McDougall and chair Misty Belford voted in favor of the mandate, and member Katye Cambell and vice-chair Matt Susin voted against it, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

Jenkins called for the emergency meeting in response to a Friday afternoon ruling by Judge John Cooper of the Second Judicial Court of Florida that Florida’s Constitution requires public schools to keep students safe, and that school districts can impose mask mandates to accomplish that. Cooper has not yet signed his final judgment.

Everyone in indoor school premises over the age of 2 years old — including staff, students and volunteers — will be required to wear a face-covering unless they are engaged in intense physical activity. Students at BPS will be allowed to opt out with a signed note from a licensed medical professional. The policy is less lenient than the one in place last year, which did not require masks for students in grade second or younger.

The vote came down to Belford, who has previously voted against a mask policy. At an Aug. 10 meeting, she said the school district would face financial penalties if it were to impose a mask requirement. She also voted against a mask policy that included a parental opt out, saying processing the opt outs would burden administrators already overworked due to the pandemic and that a policy without an opt out was the same as none at all.

But on Monday Belford said that though she doesn’t want to see a mask mandate last for an extended period of time, a temporary one is the district’s best option to slow the transmission of the virus.

“We have a very serious crisis on our hands,” Belford said. “And I think that we have a very small window of opportunity to do something to break this cycle and get some relief. In full transparency, I anticipate DeSantis is going to appeal the ruling from the judge … but right now, we have a small window to try to interrupt the spread.”

On Friday, BPS announced its highest-yet increase in COVID-19 cases and quarantines for the school year, with 784 students and staff testing positive and 4,021 quarantined from Tuesday to Thursday. The district has now seen over 3,000 cases since it began tracking numbers Aug. 2.

Brevard joins 10 other Florida counties in defiance of DeSantis’s executive order forbidding schools from requiring masks.

Some 142 people signed up to speak at the meeting. Speakers were limited to one minute each instead of the typical three minutes.

The scene outside the meeting was rowdy, and protesters traded insults via megaphone. A Moms for Liberty member brought a large speaker to play protest-themed music like “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd and “Uprising” by Muse. The line to sine up for a speaking slot stretched half the length of the building.

Jenkins entered the meeting to boos from the audience, followed by a “recall Jenkins” chant. Susin entered to cheers.

Belford warned the audience several times to stop interrupting speakers with applause, mutters and laughter.

“I have watched you literally laugh at people who are crying at the podium,” Belford said. “Whether I agree with them or they agree with you or you agree with them doesn’t matter. We will have a respectful boardroom or we will have an empty boardroom.”

About two thirds of the speakers present spoke against the mask policy. They said masks would worsen the mental health of students, that children are unlikely to become seriously ill and that the school had no legal authority to impose a mandate. Some said their children had shown speech delays from not being able to see teachers and peers pronounce words.

Many parents said they would pull their kids from BPS if a mandate passed or that they intended to defy the policy and send their children to class without masks regardless.

But those present in favor of masks said they were sure that they represent a silent majority. An online petition to mandate masks in BPS gathered over 4,000 signatures by noon.

The district has 10 staff members in the ICU, four of whom are on ventilators, Jenkins said. She said one student is on a ventilator.

“I will defend my husband’s life, my family’s life, my community’s life,” Jenkins said. “I will not be quiet. … I will absolutely not be on the wrong side of history here. It is not political for me, it’s personal.”

McDougall said she was in favor of the policy because it would allow the school district to reduce quarantines. Students who are wearing masks and are at least three feet apart are not considered to be close contacts according to CDC guidelines, but many district classrooms don’t meet other social distancing standards such as ventilation.

Campbell said she was concerned about instituting a mask mandate before Cooper signed his judgement. She asked the board to add a parental opt out, to limit the mandate to buses and to place a tight time frame on any mandate.

“There is no way any of the five of us can vote and say we represent our constituents, because our constituents are divided,” said Campbell, who also said that if a mask mandate was approved her children would wear them. “I believe there’s not a person in this room who doesn’t have our students’ best interest at heart.”

Susin, who voted against approving the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, said there was no justification for an emergency meeting and called the motion to discuss the policy illegal. He pointed to falling COVID-19 hospitalization rates over the past week and a lower-than-usual number of currently quarantined students Monday morning.

He also said a mask mandate would be ineffective because students don’t wear masks properly, and said he wouldn’t vote for a mandate because DeSantis will doubtless appeal Cooper’s ruling.

“This is a seesaw,” Susin said. “I have a personal experience with large cases and know that this is a seesaw, and we don’t need to put the mental health of our people on a seesaw, back and forth, whether this is law, whether this is not.”

A few people stormed out of the meeting after the vote, saying to the board, “Fired, you’re all fired.”

“Except for Matt,” one audience added.