Sensing momentum might be on their side, a coalition of Pinellas County parents and advocates is ramping up their demand for district schools to mandate masks as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
The group plans to rally outside the School Board’s meeting on Tuesday before bringing their message inside for public comments.
Along the way, they’ve begun sending action alerts via social media and email to thousands of supporters, urging them to press board members to join the growing number of Florida school districts imposing a mask mandate with a medical note as the only exception.
At least one Pinellas board member, Caprice Edmond, plans to ask for an emergency meeting to consider a mask mandate.
On Friday, the Sarasota County school district adopted such a mandate, followed on Sunday by Leon County, bringing the total to seven districts that educate more than 1 million children statewide.
“We have to respond to the environment we’re in,” said Chrissy Krampert, an organizer of the Pinellas Safe Schools group. “Public health is a group project. ... We have 104,000 students who are depending on us to protect them.”
Two weeks ago, the Pinellas School Board decided to keep masks optional among students and staff. Board chairperson Carol Cook said at the time that she did not want to burden teachers or administrators with the paperwork of a formal opt-out plan attached to a mandate, suggesting the result would be no different than a voluntary rule.
Two board members — Edmond and Laura Hine — have pushed for another session to reconsider the issue. So far, they haven’t found support for the idea.
On Monday, Edmond and Cook said the masking issue is weighing heavily on the board.
”We have to do all we can to protect our students and staff,” Edmond said, noting the rising number of cases and quarantines in the schools. In addition to proposing an emergency meeting, she said she has been calling medical professionals, asking for their opinions and encouraging them to get their views to the board.
Cook said she remained uncertain about how to proceed. Since the mask issue is not on the board’s Tuesday agenda, she said, it won’t be decided at that meeting.
But if a board member brings it up, they can discuss the concepts and schedule a future session, she added.
Cook said she would be watching the court proceedings in Leon County, where several Florida families have challenged the constitutionality of the governor’s actions leading to a ban on school mask mandates.
”I’m not in favor of breaking the law,” Cook said, adding that parents also need to take responsibility to protect children’s health. “I really go back and forth, and back and forth.”
The board’s inaction so far prompted the pro-mask parents to get busy after many of them remained silent in recent weeks while mask mandate opponents dominated the public discourse. During the spring, as the coronavirus appeared to be in remission and hopes were high for a more normal school year, many of the pro-mask advocacy groups had gone dormant, Krampert acknowledged.
“When delta hit, we realized we needed to ramp back up,” she said, referring to the coronavirus delta variant, which has proven to be far more transmissible than the original virus.
In the first two weeks of classes, Pinellas County reported more than 800 cases among students and staff, compared to fewer than 50 over the same period last year. By the middle of last week, the district had more than 2,700 children and employees isolated or quarantined as a result.
And those were just the instances that could be accounted for. Concerns arose that the county could not keep up with the spread.
“Parents aren’t being notified in a timely manner if there’s a case of COVID in the classroom,” said Stephanie Cox, an organizer of the Tuesday rally.
Cox removed her son, who has a pre-existing condition and isn’t old enough for a vaccination, because of the situation. She said she would feel safer if the district had a temporary mask mandate similar to those in Hillsborough, Broward and other school systems.
“There is a sense of immediacy now,” she said. ”Those of us with kids in the schools see people now whose kids are infected. ... The pressure needs to be put on for more safety in schools.”
Krampert, who has three children in the district, said people need to recognize that the pandemic still exists, despite everyone wanting it to be gone. Students are best served in classrooms, she said, agreeing with state officials who have insisted schools remain open.
But the best way to keep them open, in her view, is to have a universal mask requirement until the worst of the delta variant has passed.
“There is time to take corrective action,” Krampert said. “This is really hard, but we can do it if we work together.”
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