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Pinellas board member Caprice Edmond to try again for school mask mandate

The School Board rejected a call for a special meeting on masks in late August.
Pinellas County School Board member Caprice Edmond called on her colleagues to hold a special session to discuss mask mandates during their Aug. 24 meeting. On Friday, she announced on Facebook her plan to revive the discussion when the board meets Tuesday.
Pinellas County School Board member Caprice Edmond called on her colleagues to hold a special session to discuss mask mandates during their Aug. 24 meeting. On Friday, she announced on Facebook her plan to revive the discussion when the board meets Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 10, 2021|Updated Sep. 10, 2021

Caprice Edmond is not giving up on the issue of school masks.

The Pinellas County School Board member failed to get majority support for her Aug. 24 call to hold a special meeting aimed at implementing a district-wide student mask mandate.

With the board’s next regular session just days away, Edmond announced on Friday she would try again.

“Tuesday Sept. 14 at the School Board meeting, I intend on proposing a mask policy with a medical opt-out,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “If that fails, I will request a Special Meeting to discuss a mask policy with a medical opt-out.”

Hello, Tuesday, September 14th at the School Board Meeting, I intend on proposing a mask policy with a medical opt-out....

Posted by Caprice Edmond, Pinellas County School Board Member, District 7 on Friday, September 10, 2021

Her post came two days after School Board member Laura Hine, who supported Edmond’s Aug. 24 effort, again backed the idea of mandatory masks in a column in the Tampa Bay Times. The school district currently has a mask-optional rule.

“Our trusted medical professionals overwhelmingly advise that when our community is experiencing high spread, the required wearing of masks in our schools is the right action to take,” Hine wrote. “Given our responsibility for a safe and effective learning environment, our current conditions, and the professional recommendations, I believe it is our school board’s duty to implement all mitigation strategies to include requiring masks when conditions dictate.”

Members of the district’s medical advisory panel could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, where at least one panelist works, said Friday the hospital stands with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that all children in schools should wear masks.

The school district’s COVID-19 dashboard indicates that 94 employees and 600 students were confirmed to have positive virus cases from Monday through Thursday this week, leading to the quarantines of 945 people. Those numbers are likely an undercount as district officials have acknowledged the dashboard is behind in counting cases.

Social media reaction to Edmond’s Facebook proposal fell along well-established lines, with some parents criticizing the move as unneeded and illegal, and others praising it as long overdue.

Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi said the board owes the community a conversation on the issue, even if it falls short of a strict mask requirement.

“If they can’t get a mask mandate, they have to do something,” said Velardi, who emailed the district a week ago to encourage the board to take an official vote on options to slow the virus spread in schools. “You can’t say you care about your teachers and your students, and then do absolutely nothing.”

Board members’ past comments on the topic indicate the idea of a mask mandate with a medical opt out has a narrow path for success or failure. The outcome likely sits with chairperson Carol Cook and vice chairperson Eileen Long.

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Those two members stated at the Aug. 24 meeting that they would not support any action that violates state law. At the time, the Department of Education had accused districts with such a mandate of acting against the Parents’ Bill of Rights law and a Department of Health emergency rule requiring a parent opt-out for any mask rule. They were also acting in defiance of an order by Gov. Ron DeSantis aimed at banning mask mandates.

Since then, a Leon County judge has ruled that the Department of Education improperly implemented the law. Circuit Judge John C. Cooper further said districts could have such rules as long as they take reasonable steps that are needed to achieve a compelling state interest in a narrowly tailored way.

The ruling is under appeal. And, according to a decision Friday by the 1st District Court of Appeal, the governor’s order remains in force while the court fight plays out.

Cook said Friday she wanted to see what the legal landscape looks like on Tuesday before making any decision on the issue. She observed that several other cases remain in play that could affect the potential outcome.

“I’ll listen and see what the reasons are,” Cook said, adding that she had concerns about continually raising the prospect that the district might change course. “How many times do we have to do this?”

Cooper’s ruling has given the impetus for other school districts to adopt strict mask requirements, though, and districts that already had such policies used the language to defend their rules in the face of continued state threats.

Other Pinellas board members did not tie their views to the legality of the state’s ban on strict mask mandates. Edmond, Hine and Nicole Carr spoke of the need to take steps to reduce virus cases, while Bill Dudley stood for parents’ choice and Lisa Cane made no comments.

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