ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – On the same day that a mask mandate for St. Johns County public school employees went into effect, residents against mandates spoke out at a school board meeting. Some criticized the decision to require masks for more than 5,000 district employees and asked the district not to extend the mandate to students in the future.
The Wednesday morning joint meeting with the school board and St. Johns County commission was called to discuss redistricting in the county following the 2020 census, but like most school board meetings these days, it quickly turned into a debate over mask mandates.
One woman who spoke during public comment claimed she was speaking for the teachers that are afraid they will lose their job if they speak out.
“We are no longer trusted to make our own judgment calls on ourselves,” said Jessica Fellows. “Our liberties are under attack, and sadly some leaders are just allowing it to happen with no fight. True choice ends for everything when you go against the mainstream. Why would (Superintendent Tim) Forson enforce this when the governor didn’t? Teachers have become puppets.”
Forson told News4Jax after the decision was announced Tuesday that he wasn’t worried about any pushback or noncompliance from teachers when it comes to wearing masks.
“I think as far as us as an organization, our teachers, employees, they’re going to do whatever they can to try to support children, support families, and move in the right direction,” Forson said.
At one point during Wednesday’s meeting, St. Johns County School Board chair Patrick Canan had to ask a speaker who was against masks to keep her remarks civil after she called pointed at a school district employee and called them a “coward.”
Anti-maskers out in full force at St. Johns County meeting on redistricting. This speaker calls new mask mandate for school employees tyrannical and unconstitutional. pic.twitter.com/IKYYaClABO— Travis Gibson (@TravisDgibson) August 25, 2021
“Please, please,” Canan said.
“It’s OK. I can say what I want. It’s a free country, OK. The Constitution, one, free speech,” Caryn Chambers said. “You are taking away so many of our rights. You as a lawyer should know that.”
“Just asking you to be pleasant, be civil,” Canan responded.
Other parents who spoke said the decision to mandate masks for school employees was the right one but added they now want the same mandates for students as the number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines in area schools continues to rise. As of Tuesday, there were nearly 1,200 students in quarantine and 316 positive cases out of nearly 46,000 students. There were also 87 positive cases in staff and 42 in quarantine, according to the district.
Speaker Kathryn Skeen said she wants to see other measures put in place like COVID-19 testing, ventilation guidelines and better contact tracing.
“Let’s not speak only of masks. Let’s have an open and honest discussion about these other mitigation measures that can be put in place, even if only temporarily,” Skeen said. “And as we’ve said before, if you will not implement a full mask mandate, you still have the option of implementing a mandate with an opt-out option in compliance with the governor’s order.”
Several large school districts, like the one in Duval County, have gone against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order banning mask mandates by requiring a doctor’s note to opt out of a mask mandate, while others have decided to offer a mask opt-out that doesn’t require a note.
In St. Johns County, masks are optional for students.
The school board said Tuesday there are no plans to call an emergency meeting to discuss masks, but it will continue to monitor coronavirus cases in the county and make changes if necessary.