ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Dozens of people holding signs stood outside the St. Johns County School District offices Tuesday morning to call for a district-wide mask mandate when students return to classrooms next week.
Right now, masks are highly recommended but optional. And after a nearly seven-hour school board meeting with passionate pleas on both sides, it looks like it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Similar demonstrations for face-covering requirements have been held around the state after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that bans school districts from imposing mask mandates. That order is now being challenged in court.
“Due to the most recent increase in COVID virus spread in our community, I highly recommend the use of face masks as the school year begins,” Superintendent Tim Forson wrote in a letter to parents on Monday. “This is an important consideration in our elementary school environments in which the parents of students [younger than 12 years old] do not have the option for their children to be vaccinated. Ultimately, we are expected to follow Governor DeSantis Executive Order 21-175 which acknowledges the parental right to make decisions for their own children related to face masks. This order has been followed by emergency rules of the Florida State Board of Education and the Florida Department of Health.”
Some districts, like that in Duval, have found a way around the order by requiring masks but offering parents the chance to opt-out.
The morning demonstration was held before the St. Johns County School Board’s regular meeting at 9 a.m., though it’s worth noting that the issue of masks was not on the agenda.
It was the last school board meeting before students return so many viewed it as the final push to have the school board impose what they believe is an important measure for safety.
“I guess the thing that occurs to me is that COVID safety measures in my view, are not really about choice, or liberty or politics. They’re about community. They’re looking out for one another,” one speaker said. “And about the science, I’ve heard people say that masks don’t work. In my opinion, they work, but we could go back and forth on that for a long time.”
Those who oppose mask mandates for children also spoke during the meeting.
“If you don’t like that masks are optional, then you keep your kids home. Enough is enough,” another speaker said. “It is not fair to punish the children and families that choose fresh air over masks by implementing a mandate.”
Some questioned whether masks work at all while others who opposed a mask mandate said it would impede on their personal liberties.
“Masks absolutely work. They keep our kids safe, our families safe and our communities safe. So, I’m here to advocate for my kids and my community,” said Dr. Tina Ardon, a physician and parent.
At the end of the long meeting, the school board reiterated its intention to follow DeSantis’ executive order and keep masks optional, but it did leave the door open for changes in the future.
EDITORIAL NOTE: The [brackets] in Mr. Forson’s quote indicate where the superintendent misspoke in describing the age of vaccine eligibility. The correct information is displayed in this updated version of the article.