Pinellas School Board rejects change to student mask rule

People from both sides of the school mask debate showed up outside Pinellas County school district headquarters in Largo before Tuesday’s School Board meeting. Opponents of masks in schools, on the left, faced supporters of masks, on the right. Later in the day, the board voted 4-3 against a motion to hold a special meeting this week to consider a 90-day mask mandate.

The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday cut short any further discussion of a mask mandate for students and staff, narrowly rejecting a proposal to meet on the topic.

The vote put Pinellas on a different path from other large districts around the state, including neighboring Hillsborough County, who have voted in recent days to challenge the state’s ban on school mask mandates.

Board member Caprice Edmond had proposed holding a special meeting later this week, at which the board would consider a 90-day mask mandate with an opt-out provision for medical reasons. The board would reassess the decision every 30 days, she said.

She said the need was great, given the county’s health conditions in the face of rising coronavirus case numbers among children.

“There’s too much at stake to sit idly by and let this virus burn through,” Edmond said. “This is a public health issue. We need to do something. People are really counting on us.”

Most of her colleagues did not agree, rejecting her motion on a 4-3 vote. Board members Lisa Cane, Carol Cook, Bill Dudley and Eileen Long voted against the special meeting. Joining Edmond in supporting the measure were board members Laura Hine and Nicole Carr.

“Here’s the bottom line. I took an oath to uphold the law,” Long said after a lengthy public comment session. She referred to the parental bill of rights law that Gov. Ron DeSantis has invoked when saying schools must give parents choices on masks.

Dudley said the idea of mandating masks rubbed him the wrong way.

“A large number of people want masks. A large number want choice,” Dudley said. “To me, the mandate is choice. That’s my feeling on it.”

The board will continue its policy that recommends but does not require masks.

Its decision came on the second day of a trial aimed at determining whether the governor’s interpretation of his powers and the law are correct regarding his recent order banning school mask mandates. In that hearing based in Tallahassee, Stanford University professor Jay Bhattacharya, who has become a go-to pandemic expert for DeSantis, took center stage.

He testified that he has served as an “informal advisor” to the governor during the pandemic, and has been a frequent guest in roundtable discussions pertaining to masks, lockdowns and vaccinations.

The trial is playing out in court as a growing number of Florida school districts impose mask mandates without a parent opt-out clause. School board members in Pinellas, Orange and Monroe counties on Tuesday became the latest ones to discuss requiring universal mask mandates for staff and students.

At one point on Tuesday, the state’s attorneys asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing in part that parents who filed the lawsuit and who have testified in the case have no legal standing because their children live in districts that have imposed mask mandates.

Judge John Cooper declined to dismiss the case. The trial was expected to continue Wednesday, with a ruling this week.

In Pinellas, before debating the issue themselves, the board decided to take public comment. Cook attempted to keep the conversation about whether the board should have a meeting, and not about the value of masks.

That didn’t happen.

Over several hours, mask opponents and proponents quickly indicated their thoughts about the meeting proposal, and then quickly pivoted to their underlying views. Despite large numbers of speakers on both sides, the primary arguments were few.

Anti-mask residents said they opposed the special meeting because board members would be contemplating breaking the state’s recently enacted parental rights law.

“It’s our right as parents to make the medical decisions,” parent Cynthia Smith said. “What is the government going to try to take away from us next?”

They encouraged the board to instead wait for the outcome of the legal challenges to DeSantis’ order.

Some downplayed the impact of the virus, saying the concern was more about cases than deaths and that the number of child deaths was statistically low. A handful said they would ignore any mask mandate that the board imposes, suggesting masks don’t work and adding that they would work to get any board members who back the “criminal activity” of breaking state law removed from office.

Pro-mask parents and other residents cited the increasingly large number of cases being reported during the first two weeks of classes in Pinellas schools, and the more than 2,600 quarantines that have resulted. A mask mandate, they said, was the only way to keep kids — especially those unable to be vaccinated — safe from illness and for schools to stay open.

Some local pediatricians and emergency room physicians talked about the public health needs the virus has created, including the overwhelming of hospitals to the point that non-COVID emergencies cannot always be treated. They added that masks are safe and effective, regardless of the opposition.

Several people also took aim at the notion of taking no action because only a few children had died. Every child’s life should matter, they said.

“The compassionate thing to do is to use all the tools in the toolbox,” parent Jacqueline Lopez told the board. “Masks are most effective when everyone who can wear one does wear one.”

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard Tuesday afternoon, 1,008 students and school staff members had been infected since classes started on Aug. 11. The numbers rose by several dozen cases as the school board met.

Also Tuesday, superintendent Mike Grego announced the district was working with BayCare Health System to arrange for rapid coronavirus testing for all school district employees. He said two BayCare testing sites will open Wednesday for employees — one at the old Curtis Fundamental Elementary School site in Clearwater and the other at the district’s Walter Pownall Service Center at 11111 Belcher Road in Largo.

In addition, Grego said, district employees could receive tests at four sites operated by Community Health Centers of Pinellas. Planning for a fifth site is underway, he said.

Of the nearly 1,000 COVID-19 cases reported in the district this school year, 240 were staff members, according to the district dashboard.

The board also renewed its suspension of the attendance requirement for high school exam exemptions for the fall semester. They did the same last year because of the pandemic. The point was to make sure kids know they can stay home if ill and not be penalized.

And it unveiled a new dashboard for the public to track coronavirus cases in the district. Grego said the case count is not up-to-date because the health department has fallen behind, but the district is working to improve the situation.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

Photos by DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD/Tampa Bay Times

People from both sides of the school mask debate showed up outside Pinellas County school district headquarters in Largo before Tuesday’s School Board meeting. Opponents of masks in schools, on the left, faced supporters of masks, on the right. Later in the day, the board voted 4-3 against a motion to hold a special meeting this week to consider a 90-day mask mandate.