I write this to share thoughts related to the current high-intensity school mask mandate question here in Pinellas, across Florida and our nation. This issue is just one of a number of issues ripping through our government and citizenry to which a consistent framing around values could apply as citizens and elected officials grapple with them.
Little League is starting up the fall season and as I head to coach my son’s team, I will share with them the same values that my father taught my and my sister’s Little League teams in the 1980s: Do your best, be a good teammate, and have fun.
These same values apply and deepen as we engage with the world as adults. We learn that having fun is actually the product of doing one’s best and being a team player; in doing so, we experience a kind of joy. Across family, church, Scouts, the military and Little League, the values of serving others before oneself and living a life worthy of the calling have been imbued in me, and I imagine in many Americans. This spirit of service inspired me in recent years to serve our local school, then to ask our county voters to elect me to serve on our school board.
From the Code of Hammurabi to today, groups of people make common agreements, laws, and policies, for a fair, safe, and stable existence from which their community can thrive. By virtue of being Americans, we all agree to live by laws that exist originally and that continue to be created and amended over time by elected policy makers and our judicial system.
The role of elected officials is to be alive to the conditions within their realm of authority and within their geographic area of responsibility, and to respond and lead through those conditions as needed to provide a fair, safe and stable existence from which all can thrive. The closer the policy makers are to the impacted area, the better they are suited to assess conditions and make policy. There are national and state guidelines, of course, and times when higher level direction such as interstate issues and conscripting people to war is required. For the most part, closer to home is better.
More than 90% of Americans attend our public schools for the formative years of their lives. The schools are vital to our economic strength, national security and community health and vitality. Thus, we should all support them, attend them, encourage, invest in and strengthen them together with our educators. Florida school boards are constitutionally responsible to operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district. State law and Pinellas County School Board policy further require that we provide a safe and effective learning environment. Therefore, it is within our realm of authority and within our geographic area of responsibility to respond and lead during current health events, and any other events that face our school community.
Doing our best as policy makers means orienting to the issue; researching by observing conditions in our schools and community; talking with a range of experts in affiliated fields; and hearing from constituents. With that information at hand, we apply the value of being a good teammate, of acting in the service of others even when inconvenient. Regarding COVID and masks, conditions in Pinellas schools are vastly different than they were the same time last year. Without funding for virtual learning, there is less space in classrooms, hallways and lunchrooms; without a mask requirement and with the far more contagious COVID delta we have an alarmingly higher incidence of illness and quarantine among students and staff leading to a less safe and less effective learning environment.
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. 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 and I further believe that it is every American citizen’s responsibility to be a good teammate, to serve their neighbor and the common good, even when personally inconvenient.
When issues arise collectively or individually, let us be thoughtful and nimble, and consistently frame our actions around values. One suggestion: Do your best, be a good teammate, and in so doing, have joy.
Laura Hine is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer and currently represents District 1 (countywide) on the Pinellas County School Board.