The Pinellas County School Board lifted its school masking order on Tuesday, but not before being upbraided for two hours by parents who have fought the rule all year.
Some were accompanied by small children who delivered prepared statements about sweating into their masks and struggling to breathe.
Several wove other themes into their remarks about the masks: how they were against the teaching of critical race theory and sex education, for example. Offering conspiracy theories, they tied unions and Democratic Party leaders to decisions made about COVID-19 safety.
There were more than 30 speeches before the board voted unanimously to lift the face covering order, effective 5 p.m. Wednesday, in the district’s schools and office buildings.
Speakers said the district made schools resemble prisons this year, that face coverings inhibited relationships and parents missed out on opportunities to share key moments with their children.
“This power trip has gone on for far too long,” said parent Julie Effron-McAllister. “How much longer do our children have to wait to breathe freely again?”
District leaders, who developed their protocols in consultation with medical professionals, say steps such as masking, social distancing and limited visitor access kept the contagion rates relatively low. Fewer than 5,000 adults and children were reported to contract COVID-19 in a district of about 100,000 students.
With vaccines widely available and COVID-19 rates low, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the board would lift the masking rule.
Even so, the speakers said they came to the meeting out of fear that the district can reintroduce it if COVID-19 rates spike. Asked by School Board member Caprice Edmond if that is true, attorney David Koperski said it is — but only with strong enough grounds.
Other districts, such as Hillsborough County schools, were able to avoid public hearings like the one in Pinellas. Because Hillsborough’s masking order had been imbedded in the school reopening plan, the larger district simply announced, in an email, that masks would no longer be required.
Some of the Pinellas parents vowed to vote the incumbent board out of office. And there were specific, pointed remarks about Edmond and health services managing officer Sara O’Toole.
Some of the board members could not hold back from reacting after the vote.
“We’ve been told many times that we are uncaring or that we are unfeeling,” said member Lisa Cane. “All of us have families, all of us here have children. I have four children in schools.”
Eileen Long, who recently lost her mother, was especially distraught. Children watch school board meetings, she said. “And you hear from people, ‘how did our society get this way?’”
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She noted that when the pandemic was new, it was impossible to predict its full effects.
“This country is going down quickly and we’re helping,” she said. “This isn’t about masks, this is about political issues, and don’t try to tell me it isn’t. I’m sorry I’m going off. But at 60 years old I finally realize what’s important. It’s being kind to each other.”