ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Dozens of people flooded what turned out to be a heated St. Johns County School Board meeting Tuesday to call for the end of the district’s mask mandate for students in schools.
Extra security had to be called to the chambers as more than 30 speakers stepped up to the podium and asked board members to make mask wearing for students optional as the number of coronavirus cases continues to decline amid vaccination efforts.
Commenters argued that masks can be harmful to the development of children, can impede communication and can be unsafe because they can carry bacteria.
“I just felt that it was important that, you know, all the other buildings, the county buildings, the city buildings, they’re all rescinding the mask mandate. So it’s important for me that the kids are given the option to be mask-free,” Jennifer Lovelace, a parent of a St. Johns County student who spoke at the meeting, told News4Jax on Wednesday.
At times the meeting got contentious, causing Board Chair Patrick Canan to use his gavel at least three times to call the meeting to order.
“Just about every speaker there, except for one, was there to encourage the board to take the mask off the children, and they were insistent upon a vote right then, and it was not on the agenda,” Canan told News4Jax.
The calls for the end of the mask mandate came the same day that Gov. Ron DeSantis was in Jacksonville saying that he wants the next school year to be “normal,” though it wasn’t immediately clear if he planned to ban mask mandates in schools.
The governor, who’s been critical of federal guidelines for school reopening plans, last week signed an executive order that suspended all COVID-19 emergency orders issued by local governments, but that only applies to emergency ordinances imposed by municipal or county governments. It does not affect mask and social distancing requirements set by individual school districts.
Many of the arguments on Tuesday hinged on the order issued by DeSantis.
Like many school districts, St. Johns County has opted to keep its COVID-19 safety protocols in place the rest of the school year. Currently, masks are required for all students on bus routes, between classrooms and when social distancing isn’t possible in classrooms.
Students with disabilities or medical conditions that prevent any type of face-covering will be addressed on a case-by-case basis, the district said on its website. Students who refuse to wear masks can be reassigned to distance learning after multiple warnings.
Of the 15 school districts in our area — both in Florida and Georgia — six districts still require masks, including Duval.
Right now the CDC recommends masks be worn by all students in schools, but Lovelace said she won’t send her 6-year-old son back to school if that’s the case next year in St. Johns County.
Dr. Lucy Miller, a Jacksonville Beach pediatrician, also spoke Tuesday and encouraged the school district to follow evidence-based medicine, according to a report from The St. Augustine Record. Canan said she was heckled and booed when she gave her opinion.
“I thought most of them made great points, I became really disappointed in the tone and the attitude, and the disrespect and the foul language by some of them, not all,” Canan said. “I thought it kind of watered down their message and kind of hurt their message, quite frankly.”
The district told News4Jax it is planning to get feedback from stakeholders, employees, parents and community leaders before bringing a reopening plan forward to the school board.
Despite the calls for the change, the school board won’t consider whether or not to continue its mask mandate next year until a June meeting.
“I totally get it, it’s just, there’s another side to the story,” Canan said of the calls to end the mandate. “And so we’re the governing body, we’re trying to balance it all and make the right decision. Obviously, we can’t make everyone happy all the time.”