Bradenton Herald | by Giuseppe Sabella | May 11, 2021
As Manatee County schools near the finish line for the year, some families are renewing their push to end a district-wide mask mandate.
On Monday, with less than two weeks before the semester ends, some parents will send their children to school without masks, protesting a requirement that everyone wear a face covering in district schools, offices and buses. And while the School Board was already moving toward ending its mandate before the new school year in August, the process was too slow for some parents.
“On May 17 I’m sending my daughter to school without her mask as a protest — a peaceful protest that you guys all support,” protest organizer Ryan Bray said on April 30, addressing the Manatee School Board.
Bray, the father of a local high school student, also filed a complaint in Manatee County Circuit Court, along with an emergency motion for injunctive relief against the School Board and its mask mandate. Judge Edward Nicholas denied the motion last week, noting that Bray’s complaint was “not an emergency” and would not require an expedited hearing.
In a follow-up interview on Monday afternoon, Bray said masks were causing headaches and other discomfort among students. He also said students were failing to wear the masks properly, negating any benefits of the mandate.
And though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends mask policies in schools, noting that most students “can tolerate and safely wear a mask,” local and state officials have cast doubt on the national guidance.
“We haven’t followed the CDC as a county, as a state, the entire time,” Bray said at last month’s School Board meeting. “In fact, our governor last night stated that he doesn’t follow the CDC, and the reason why is they’re continuously wrong. They’re wrong on this. You’re wrong on this.”
STATE LEADERS EMPOWER PROTEST
At the state level, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued executive orders and made it difficult for local governments to enact or enforce mask mandates. And Manatee County Commissioner James Satcher, who scoffed at CDC recommendations earlier this year, has urged School Board members to “unmask our children.”
He was not alone in making that demand. On a Facebook page created for Monday’s school protests, at least 73 people said they were interested in taking part, while more than 130 people marked themselves as “interested.”
“We have had enough,” the event page states. “It is time to unmask our students. Have your students show up to school without a mask in peaceful protest.”
“Please also tell your students not to bully or shame anyone who still chooses to wear a mask,” it continues. “We are respectful of those who choose to mask and expect to be respected in our choice to not wear one.”
Bray’s wife, Betsy, created the Facebook page, while two other people created online petitions over the last week. As of Monday morning, the petitions attracted more than 2,400 signatures in support of ending the School Board’s mask mandate.
“Teachers should be educating their students, not spending their valuable time feeling like they need to police and punish children for not wearing their mask correctly,” one petition reads.
While some parents opposed a mandate from the very beginning, Florida’s top health and education leaders have recently empowered the movement to end mask requirements. The state’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, issued a memo to superintendents on April 14, urging school districts to end their mandates for the upcoming 2021-22 school year.
And the state’s surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, said in a letter on April 29 that “long-term use of face coverings and withdrawal from social and recreational gatherings” could have unintended consequences.
STUDENTS COULD FACE DISCIPLINE
The pressure came to a head last week when the governor suspended all local government mandates and restrictions based on the COVID-19 state of emergency. While the Florida Department of Education later clarified that schools were unaffected by the order, it led to confusion and further protest in Manatee County.
In an email to school principals on May 3, district leaders said the mask policy would remain and that Manatee’s Code of Student Conduct would apply to students who refuse a face covering. The email listed a four-step process:
- Inform students they are not allowed in class without a mask and then contact their parents or guardians.
- Offer the students a mask.
- If the students refuse to wear a mask, send them to in-school suspension and assign classwork.
- Open big rooms to “accommodate large groups of protesters” if needed.
Schools will continue to rely on the Code of Student Conduct during Monday’s protests, district spokesman Mike Barber confirmed.
The exact punishment would depend on a student’s discipline history, according to the book, which has escalating punishments for disruptive behavior, dress code violations and other offenses.
“Please also note, that while some may support the right to a peaceful protest, those protests cannot include violations of School Board policy, such as Policy 8450 above,” the district recently said in a message posted to its website and social media, referencing the mask requirement.
LOCAL PARENT OPPOSES MASK PROTEST
Comforted by the mask mandate and other safety precautions, Kelly Taillefer sent her daughter back to a local middle school in the second quarter of the year, ending her time as an online student.
The mother said she was dismayed after going online and learning about the upcoming protest. She felt parents were using their children as a “pawn” in the fight to end Manatee schools’ mask requirement, adding undue stress to the end of a long pandemic school year.
“My child, as well as her friends and a lot of people I know, their actual child felt very happy knowing they had some control over this pandemic,” she said. “They were doing their part. What upset me the most was that these parents were going to take that control away from them and make them feel as though what they have been doing is wrong.”
There were still lingering questions before the new school year: Would more students and school employees be vaccinated against COVID-19? Would enough people be vaccinated before new coronavirus variants take hold?
And when would the available COVID-19 vaccines be available to the county’s youngest learners? The answer became more clear this week, when U.S. regulators took the first step to approve the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 12.
In Manatee County, about 44% of residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Between 70% to 90% of people need to reach immunity through either vaccination or infection before herd immunity is reached, according to an article published by the University of Florida.
“Masks should be mandated 100% until we have the numbers under control and we’ve developed herd immunity,” Taillefer said.
THE BIG VOTE
What: The School Board will vote on whether to end its mask mandate by early June.
When and where: The meeting is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. May 25. Board meetings take place at the School Support Center, 215 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.
Restrictions: In-person guests must wear a mask and undergo a temperature check.
How to watch on TV: Anyone can also watch the meetings by visiting the Manatee Schools Television website, mstv.us, and by tuning into Spectrum Channel 646 or Frontier Channel 39.
Featured image: Ryan Bray says his daughter will not be wearing a mask to school on May 17th as protest, Kelly Taillefer says masks should be mandated until herd immunity is reached. BY TIFFANY TOMPKINS