When the Hernando County School Board discussed requiring students to wear masks to fight Covid-19 Tuesday, Aug. 31 many of those against the proposal told them they had no right to do so.
Still, the board decided to require masks… sort of.
Board members voted 3-2 to temporarily mandate masks unless parents “opt-out” of the so-called requirement by completing an online form to that effect, with members Jimmy Lodato and Gus Guadagnino dissenting. Beginning Monday, parents, grandparents, or guardians who don’t want their children to wear a mask must simply say so until Oct. 12, when the board will review the results of the experiment and reconsider the issue.
However, school Supt. John Stratton told board members the district should require all employees, volunteers, vendors or other adult visitors to wear a mask. The board approved the recommendation after determining the district is within its legal rights to do so, noting this is in accordance with state law.
Other area school districts requiring masks for children allow parents to opt-out of the rule, but almost all require special medical reasons to justify it. The Hernando policy mirrors the one implemented by the Marion County School District, which also allows a “parental opt-out” provision.
Board Attorney Dennis Alfonso reported the following districts recommend masks but don’t require them for staff, visitors, or students: Citrus, Levy, Lake, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, and Sumter. Districts with a mandatory mask policy with medical opt-out include Hillsborough, Alachua, Duval, Indian River, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward, Leon, Orange, and Sarasota.
Board chairwoman Linda Prescott said the unusual policy will allow officials to determine how parents feel about the controversy.
“Filling out the opt-out form will tell us how the majority of the parents feel about it,” she said. “It bothered me when people said we’re not listening to the majority.”
Lodato said he vetoed the measure because all it does is add a little more bureaucracy to the school system without any substantive benefits. He stressed that an involuntary mandate would violate the Parents Bill of Rights that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law giving parents sovereignty over their children’s health care.
Lodato read a statement saying he supported a mask mandate last year when Florida schools reopened because he wanted it to be done safely, and masks were required “for everyone…If the schools require masks and no one else does, what’s the point?
“I just believe in freedom,” he said, adding that includes continuing a pro-choice policy in Hernando County. Fellow dissenter Guadognino said it’s not about politics, “It’s all about what we feel is best for the children.”
Local vote, statewide debate
The Parents Bill of Rights is part of a statewide legal entanglement between officials in Tallahassee and their education counterparts across the state battling over this and other pandemic protocols. Alfonso told members their local policies may ultimately be undermined by how these matters are eventually resolved at the state level, which may take some time.
DeSantis’ Executive Order 21-175 prohibited health or education officials from enacting any measures to control the spread of Covid-19 that “violate Floridians constitutional freedoms.” It also prohibited them from taking actions that violate parents’ rights under state law to “make health care decisions for their minor children” or passing “protocols such as face masking requirements” that harm children with disabilities or health conditions.
The order allows the state to withhold funds from “any non-compliant school boards violating any rules” pursuant to this law, including the salaries of school officials.
However, last week Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled in favor of a group of parents who filed a suit challenging the state’s policy. Cooper granted a permanent injunction against state education officials banning them from taking action against school districts passing mask mandates, which is expected to go into effect this week.
Alfonso cautioned the board any action taken on the matter could be circumvented by the ongoing legal issues. “There’s a whole lot of challenges against the governor and the Department of Education,” he noted.
Still, board member Kay Hatch said she feels a need to act due to the rising number of infections. Districtwide, 541 students and 173 staffers have reportedly tested positive since the pandemic began.
“We are facing a public health crisis,” she said, noting she worked in pediatric care for 25 years. “The numbers are going up week to week to week.”
‘Pro-choice, not anti-mask’
Roughly 100 turned out for the forum, so many the throng had to be split into two groups, one after the other. With several sheriff’s deputies on hand, Stratton warned people repeatedly to stop shouting while the board deliberated or they would be removed.
Calling themselves “passionate” and “pro-choice, not anti-mask,” dozens of people vehemently opposed to a mask requirement spoke out.
They included Thomas Sciole, who said he has researched multiple studies on the subject. “It’s not about protecting the children, it’s all about politics,” he said. “If masks saved lives that would be a different matter, but the fact is masks just don’t work, for a number of reasons. Different experts tell you different things, and they change their story.”
Two tearful mothers detailed how their children had been traumatized by wearing a mask, even permanently. A few students echoed these comments, including one teenager who said her mask caused her to develop acne.
“Don’t let your fears ruin our children’s lives,” parent Byron Fisher pleaded.
Numerous speakers were confrontational, expressing disgust for how the district is governed. A half-dozen people threatened to replace board members in next year’s election, along with Alfonso and Stratton. Three identified themselves as candidates, with one circulating fliers for “Team America.”
“We’re going to keep coming and coming,” one woman said, “We’ll keep you here all night.”
The most popular speaker was also the youngest, 9-year-old Vincent Soto. He received a loud ovation when he shouted, “We need to fight back against evil! Masks are so bad for the community.”
Others were more theatrical, like retired respiratory therapist Nadine Casatelli. She donned an authentic burka robe Muslim women must wear under sharia law and compared the oppression they experience to what children suffer when forced to wear masks.
“I worked in a hospital for 30 years, a very sterile environment,” she said. “You only need to wear a mask when you’re in direct contact with somebody, touching them.”
Certainly, the most common complaint was simply this: Parents should make medical decisions for their children, not public officials. Several read from the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence to make their case.
There were a few people at the meeting that believed a mask mandate would help.
Vince LaBorante, Hernando County Classroom Teachers (HCTA) President, said the behavior of some of the parents in the room was setting a bad example for their children to follow. He also noted people are not allowed to smoke in public buildings because it endangers the health of others, comparing that to the threat posed by people who don’t wear masks inside buildings.
A woman who asked not to be quoted because she works locally as a nurse described what she and her co-workers are going through: “If people knew what we are dealing with they might look at this differently,” she said. “It’s really getting tough.”