Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 13, 2021
As we begin the 2021-2022 school year, the wearing of masks by students and staff will be recommended and highly encouraged, but not mandated, when social distancing cannot be maintained or in mixed groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
The need for wearing masks will continue to be evaluated.
Dr. Kathy Burns, District Superintendent
excerpted from 2021-22 “Return to School Safety Protocols,” August 2, 2021
More than 50 people attended the Nassau County School Board (NCSB) regular meeting on August 12, 2021. While concerns over bus routes and budgets are generally high on the radar this time of year, meeting attendees were virtually unanimous in voicing their concerns over one matter: face masks in schools to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Seventeen speakers — including 4 medical doctors — urged the NCSB and Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burns to update its policy of “highly encouraging” face masks to mandating face masks for students, teachers and support staff.
Dr. Burns, NCSB Chair Dr. Donna Martin, and NCSB Attorney Brett Steger all spoke to the genesis of the current policy (stated in the introduction to this article) and discussed how and how not the policy might be amended to address safety concerns while not running afoul of the Governor’s Executive Order which prohibits local school districts from infringing on parents’ rights by mandating face masks. Penalties for violating this policy can be severe: withholding state funding for school districts and eliminating salaries for school superintendents and school board members who ignore the Executive Order.
In essence, the Florida school boards and superintendents are between a rock and a hard place. By their actions and policies they have made student safety paramount; but if state funding is withdrawn, the future of education is at stake.
Speaking in favor of the mandate were medical professionals, teachers and parents, who claimed that the current policy is not protecting students. Furthermore, they were distressed that what appeared to be a majority of teachers and support staff were also not wearing masks. Only one speaker spoke in opposition to a face mask mandate.
Some of the comments from speakers are provided below:
- The vacine is like a seatbelt. It doesn’t prevent accidents, but it does keep you alive in an accident.
- Hospitals are like a war zone. Young and healthy people, including kids, are dying.
- Prepare for another Covid wave in 6-8 weeks.
- People don’t die from wearing masks.
- Masks are the only protection we have from the unvaccinated, who are the control group for the virus.
- Stand up to bullying from Tallahassee!
- Covid is more likely to spread on our campuses than attacks from armed shooters.
- Staff should set the example.
- If we can enforce dress codes, we should be able to enforce wearing of face masks.
- Adopt a mandate with an opt out provision.
- Open windows to air out schools at the end of each school day.
- Children who wear masks are in the minority and ridiculed by others.
Marian Phillips, President of Nassau Educational Support Personnel Association (NESPA), reminded the audience that requiring staff to wear face masks would be a change in working conditions that must be collectively bargained. Dr. Burns agreed. However, this was not presented as an obstacle by either side. Teachers are represented by Nassau Teacher’s Association (NTA), and would also need changes to their contract to mandate face masks.
In response to the question: What can we do? Phillips and School Board Members advised the audience to call and paper the Governor’s Office and the Office of the Education Commissioner with their concerns.
Dr. Burns reported that she has been in conversation with other school superintendents to determine how they are handling the situation. Attorney Steger said that districts that have defied the governor on face masks have received warnings from the Education Commissioner. However, adopting a mask requirement with an unconditional opt out provision for parents seems to provide a more promising approach. The school districts that have gotten into trouble did so because they make limited exceptions, in some cases requiring medical documentation that a child could not wear a face mask.
Because the face mask controversy had not been publicly noticed on the August 12, 2021 meeting agenda, the NCSB could not vote to change the existing policy. However, the NCSB is convening a Special Meeting on August 17 ar 7:00 p.m. The only topic on the agenda will be the face mask policy.
Contact information for state and county officials is provided below:
Governor Ron DeSantis
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran
Nassau County School Board
School Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burns