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Florida’s school mask wars put kids in the middle | Column
Masks could have been a simple, united front, instead of a breeding ground for bullies.
Students arrive at Leto High School for the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, Tuesday, August 10, 2021 in Tampa.
Students arrive at Leto High School for the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, Tuesday, August 10, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 10
Updated Aug. 10

It’s back to school time, so naturally, adults are fighting over which adult is the most principled adult. But let’s remember who actually has to tolerate locker-shoving and cyberbullying on apps adults don’t even know how to download.

School is the pits! Picture it. It’s holiday season 1993, and the cool kids are wearing Santa hats. You get one from Big Lots embroidered with “Ho Ho Ho.” But this is seventh grade, and everyone has learned exciting new pejoratives. Your hat does not play as expected.

Or, picture it. It’s 2021, and you’ve done well getting through an unimaginable pandemic. You hate masks, but everyone has to wear one, like how everyone has to take turns reading aloud from Bridge to Terabithia. At least you’re in it together.

But suddenly, you’re not. Now, kids are divided, the masks and the mask-nots, as if the garment is a mortifying festive hat and not a life-saving tool. The health risks are big, and so are the grounds for bullying.

It would have been simple to unite kids in the struggle just a little longer while we get control of this surge. Remember, kids under 12 can’t get a vaccine yet, and the highly transmissible Delta variant is hitting younger people. But Florida, home to the most children hospitalized from COVID-19 anywhere in the country, has turned this into a David Lynch movie. With all respect to David Lynch.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold funding from districts that require masks, leading to frantic, last-minute board meetings. After a long workshop Monday, Pinellas schools decided to keep masks “strongly recommended,” but optional. Some Florida districts, including Hillsborough, are requiring masks unless parents submit an opt-out form. It’s as close as districts can get to full masking while being held hostage for educational dollars.

Related: Got questions about kids, school and delta variant? Here are some answers.

And there’s more. If a student feels harassed about anything COVID-related, the State Board of Education’s answer is to let them apply for a voucher to a new school. It’s another political move to prevent mandates that, once again, places the burden on children.

Here, kids, hold this piece of Swiss cheese.

Schools already have authority to dictate dress, sending kids home for form-fitting clothes, saggy pants, rips, tears, slogans and 12 other bullet points. For instance, my high school principal did not care about the opinions of my parents when she told me to cover up. I stand vigorously by that velour tank top and matching skirt.

Related: Florida leads the nation in kids hospitalized for COVID

Those same schools insist on health and safety, requiring a clinic card, tetanus shots and other immunizations. Kids are not allowed to jump off the roof with paper pterodactyl wings on, no matter what their parents believe.

Back to the kids. Because it is about the kids, lest we forget.

With little ones slinging backpacks on their shoulders as we speak, what can we do? It’s in their hands now. No matter where you stand, it’s a great time to remind kids to be quality human beings. To stand up for those being picked on, to not participate or punch down. To offer friendship.

Tell them that adults believe all kinds of things, and they better get used to it. Tell them that none of this is their fault. Tell them as they wade into the morass, it’s their job to be better than we are.

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