Debate over masks in St. Johns County schools gets heated at latest board workshop

The debate over face masks in the St. Johns County School District is still being fought after a Pedro Menendez High School student died last week.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – The debate over face masks in the St. Johns County School District is still being fought after a Pedro Menendez High School student died last week.

The board talked about the district’s response to the pandemic so far this year, and the arguments over whether students should be wearing face coverings heated up again.

Several speakers raised their voices at the board members over the idea of mandating masks in schools.

“I’m surprised that there seems to be a lack of urgency in response to the highly contagious emergence of the dangerous COVID delta variant,” said SJCSD stakeholder Lisa Lloyd. “I’m here to ask you as a non-partisan board to please take action to protect all the students of St. Johns County and providing a safe environment for them to learn.”

A group of opponents to the idea of a mask mandate spoke out strongly against it, often citing debunked information, conspiracy theories and even scripture.

“‘If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his sight, and give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I have put on the Egyptians,” stakeholder Sandy Baker quoted from the book of Exodus. “‘For I, the Lord, am your healer.’ He is my healer. Not some masks, which, by the way, are worn in all satanic rituals. Know your enemy.”

Most opponents pointed to the Parents’ Bill of Rights and the state’s emergency rule aimed at banning mask mandates, though that issue is being fought out in court.

During a board workshop Tuesday morning, Superintendent Tim Forson noted the skyrocketing cases in the district -- and acknowledged that if the situation worsens, that classrooms or schools would have to temporarily transition to virtual learning.

Ultimately, the district said it’s following the Florida Department of Health’s decision tree on how and when to quarantine students.

During the public comment section of the meeting, several speakers mentioned the death of 17-year-old Menendez High School student Giona Stiles -- referring to it as a COVID-19 related death. The teen’s cause of death has not been confirmed yet, but Dr. Mobeen Rathore, a pediatrician with UF Health and Wolfson Children’s Hospital, said Tuesday that a 17-year-old in St. Johns County had died from COVID-19 complications.

Pediatrician Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, again, strongly recommended during public comment that the school board adopt a mask mandate -- while several parents implored the board to do the same.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the vast majority of medical experts confirm masks do help slow the spread of diseases like COVID-19.

Right now, the district doesn’t have plans to impose a mask mandate.