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Pinellas, Hillsborough Democrats urge schools to defy DeSantis on masks

Party leaders are calling on school boards to mandate masks when classes begin next week.
Masked students take their seats in this image from a Pinellas County Schools video from 2020. The face coverings are not required for the 2021-22 school year, which begins next week. But Democratic Party officials, noting the recent spike in coronavirus cases, are urging school districts to change that.
Masked students take their seats in this image from a Pinellas County Schools video from 2020. The face coverings are not required for the 2021-22 school year, which begins next week. But Democratic Party officials, noting the recent spike in coronavirus cases, are urging school districts to change that. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published Aug. 5
Updated Aug. 11

Pushback against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order against school mask mandates is solidifying along partisan lines.

The Pinellas Democratic Party said Thursday it called upon the Pinellas School Board to require all students to wear masks when the district’s schools reopen on Wednesday. In an email to board members, local party chair Lucinda Johnston said she wrote that “the board must take action now to protect our children from the explosive surge in COVID cases among children in the state and the county.”

Democrats in Hillsborough and Orange counties have joined the Pinellas group in this effort, according to the notice. “We need for these school boards to push back on Gov. DeSantis’ bullying tactics and protect our children and our communities,” Johnston said. “Our School Board was elected to provide for the education and well-being of our children, and DeSantis’ anti-science stance is a campaign stunt for his extremist political base.”

Related: Opposition grows to DeSantis school mask edict. ‘One size does not fit all.’

The party quoted the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reported nearly 72,000 new cases among children during the week of July 22-29, an 84 percent increase over the 39,000 cases reported a week earlier. Since June, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of pediatric cases, the academy said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida leads the nation in pediatric COVID-19 cases and has the highest rate of hospitalization for children.

While state data showed very few COVID-19 deaths among children under 16 in the pandemic’s first year, updated numbers are difficult to obtain because Florida scaled back its reporting in July.

Proponents of school masking point to the highly contagious delta and Lambda variants. These strains increase the danger of contagion at a time when public schools will be far more crowded, as the state is not allowing the funding they offered last year for remote instruction.

“Imagine what can happen when kids are packed together on school buses or in classrooms with hundreds of others without masks or distancing procedures in place,” Johnston’s letter said. “It could be catastrophic.”

The Pinellas School Board meets next on Aug. 24. The Hillsborough board will meet Aug. 12, two days after children in that county will return to classes.

Among Hillsborough board members, Jessica Vaughn has been the most outspoken on the mask issue, calling unsuccessfully for an earlier board meeting to discuss the issue and suggesting that masked students be allowed to study in separate cohorts.

Ione Townsend, chair of the Hillsborough Democratic Party, said Thursday that she was preparing an email to the Hillsborough School Board, similar to Johnston’s appeal in Pinellas.

“How can we live with ourselves if we don’t do everything we can to protect our children?” Townsend asked.

Hillsborough County Democratic Party chair Ione Townsend
Hillsborough County Democratic Party chair Ione Townsend [ WILLIAM MARCH | Photo courtesy of Ione Townsend ]

She said the party will call for approval of a mask mandate for all staff, teachers, administrators and students, with an “opt out” procedure for parents, giving them the final say. The Duval County school district announced a similar strategy early in the week.

“Florida has the most new cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19,” Townsend said.

“Florida also has the most children in the hospital. Our Florida school boards are responsible for protecting our students. The governor should be setting policies to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens based on science. Instead, he is bullying, and blackmailing our schools by making financial threats, for his own political purposes. Governor DeSantis has failed Florida. We deserve better.”

Angry words are being exchanged elsewhere over the masking issue. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott should “get out of the way” if they are not going to allow local institutions to combat the virus.

DeSantis, in public remarks Wednesday that were directed at Biden, said, “I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you.” The governor said Biden’s immigration policies were contributing to the spread of the virus.

Closer to home, Florida’s State Board of Education has scheduled an emergency meeting Friday, describing the wearing of masks in school as a danger to health requiring immediate action. Among other things, the board will discuss how to assist families who believe COVID-19 protocols are interfering with their children’s education, including possible use of a private school scholarship fund for children who have been bullied.

“This is just another ploy by the unelected State Board of Education to defund public education in Florida,” said the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida. “Wearing masks at school is not bullying any more than stopping at red lights is bullying.”

The state is also expected to release guidelines Friday related to DeSantis’ executive order.