The Pinellas County School Board remained on track Tuesday to end its mask mandate at the end of business June 9, after classes end.
It stuck with its plan to rescind its policy in the face of overwhelming pressure to cancel the rule immediately.
For nearly five hours, dozens of parents, students and other residents used the board’s public comment period to accuse the board of child abuse for its continued insistence that people wear masks inside schools and other district properties.
They argued that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ May 4 executive orders suspended all local mask requirements, and contended the board was violating state laws by not listening to their “boss.” The Department of Education, headed by a DeSantis hand-picked appointee, issued a statement clarifying the orders do not apply to school districts, but the speakers did not accept that position.
“Unmask our children,” said Jackie Thorpe, a Palm Harbor parent of two. “I don’t understand why the science stops here.”
Several of the speakers argued that the masks harm children, and said if the board did not undo the damage immediately, the members’ days in office would be numbered.
“We’re coming for your seats,” anti-mask activist Jonathan Riches told the board, saying the opposition research into their backgrounds had already begun. “No sympathy for child abusers.”
Many offered unsubstantiated speculations that board members had been bought off, unduly influenced by their teacher union bosses, or driven by an egomaniacal power grab.
Some children came to provide their views. They spoke of the anxieties and troubles they encountered because of masks, and wondered why they’re only required in schools but not elsewhere.
A couple of the children also berated the board, echoing the language of their parents.
“Why do you hate us kids so much? Is it because you want to control us?” asked one girl, who introduced herself as Savannah.
After listening to the commentary, the board and superintendent Mike Grego took up the proposal to rescind the mask policy, first adopted in November.
Board member Bill Dudley noted the action could not come immediately, as the district must follow state rules for amending policies or face possible challenges to the action.
And those challenges could come, Grego suggested, from the many families who chose to send their children back to in-person learning because they trusted the safety protocols including masks would remain in place.
With vaccinations becoming more available, with children as young as 12 soon eligible, the time to end masks is quickly approaching, Grego said, noting his medical advisory team supported a voluntary policy starting with summer school.
“We’re almost there,” he said. “We’re going to make it.”
Grego said it was important to hear from the people who spoke out Tuesday.
“Part of our job collectively is to listen,” he said. “I hope a little more respect along the way, I would be grateful. But it is what it is.”
Board member Caprice Edmond asked several questions to clarify that the district was not acting unilaterally and without input. She stressed the decisions are not politicized, despite the accusations.
The board unanimously advanced the policy action on first reading. It will hold a public hearing before final consideration.