The Pinellas County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to extend its mandatory masking policy, over the objections of nine parents and grandparents who argued that masks are unnecessary and harmful, and that the policy goes too far.
The first speaker, Amy Mack, was told to put on a mask as she made her remarks. Another speaker, Jessie Komoniewski muttered, “I can’t breathe,” as, through her face covering, she described the rash her son, a third-grader, developed around his nose because of his school mask.
Tuesday’s reading was the first of two required to formalize the policy. A second is planned on Nov. 10.
Like other area school districts, Pinellas requires face coverings on staff and students, with limited exceptions based on age, disability and the activity the students are engaged in — such as eating, or strenuous outdoor exercise.
That emergency rule expires on Nov. 9, giving the School Board until its Nov. 10 meeting to make the policy official.
That does not mean the policy is permanent, superintendent Mike Grego told the board. It can be rescinded if the need diminishes. But it means the district can keep the rule in effect as long as medical experts advise it.
The nine speakers, however, presented information about the low incidence of coronavirus transmission and complications among children, contending masks had limited effectiveness. They said the overuse of masks deprives children of oxygen. They argued that everything, including riding in a car, carries risks.
One complained that the school-issued masks are manufactured oversees. Another said it is hard for children to learn speech when they cannot see the teacher’s mouth.
The speakers noted that there has not been an outbreak of coronavirus in the schools. But Grego remarked later that the low number of cases was due to the precautions, including masking, that the schools have taken.
Some of the speakers said healthy living habits are more effective than masking or quarantines. One said children should be allowed more fresh air and sunlight, and that vitamins A and D are effective safeguards against the virus.
Jennifer Widmeier admonished the board to “rule using factual information, and not your emotion. You are elected as nonpartisan chairs. Yet your rulings clearly show that you are toeing what your personal party line is rather than listening to the voice of the people. Please stop patting yourselves on the back and thinking that you are saving lives. You are not.”
Board member Rene Flowers, speaking during the discussion leading up to the vote, said she would not want anyone who had seen the meeting to believe some of the assertions that the speakers made, including that the flu was more deadly than COVID-19.
“We have vaccines for the flu," Flowers said. "And every single year the flu vaccine is tweaked a little bit based on the type of strain that was detected the year before. We do not have a vaccine for COVID-19.”
What’s more, she said, “if vitamin D, vitamin A and zinc kept me from getting COVID-19, there would not be any on the shelves at Walgreens, CVS or any other store. We have a lot of sunshine here lately. But that’s not what stops the virus.”
Flowers and Grego noted that scientists, and the doctors who have been working with the school district, have been unwavering in their statements that masking, social distancing and good hygiene are necessary to prevent spread of the disease.
Flowers also pushed back against the allegation that the board’s position was political.
“None of us at this table have made decisions by party," she said. "As a school board member, my party plays no role in my decision making here at all. Our role is to figure out a way to provide constructs that allow for safety while children and teachers and staff are within our boundaries as much as possible.”
A workshop is planned on Oct. 20, at which the board will continue to discuss masks and other proposed policies.