Stop abusing Florida’s school board members over COVID mask decisions | Editorial
Healthy debate is an important part of political discourse, but incivility and outright harassment are not.
Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview in August.
Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview in August. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Sept. 30, 2021

Holding elected office is both a privilege and a sacrifice. But for many county school board members who have been forced to the front lines of the battle over masks in schools, the “privilege” of their office is subjecting them to abuse and harassment that is way out of line. The only way to cool this overheated debate is for everyone with a stake in it to commit to returning to more civil discourse and common courtesy.

The mask issue is super-charged thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ heavy-handed stance: He banned local districts from mandating masks for students and staff, insisting the decision should be left to parents. Some districts defied that order, citing COVID-19 infection rates and the higher transmissibility among young people of the delta variant. DeSantis responded by withholding those school board members’ pay, casting them as unruly foes in his game of brinkmanship.

On the sidelines, and often, in the audience, are hundreds of parents — many who feel passionately that masks should be required as a means of protecting lives and health; others, just as passionate, believe a mask mandate is an outright assault on their freedom. And up there on the dais are local school board members, the vast majority of whom ran for office out of a desire to improve public education for Florida’s kids. In 2021, it’s not an enviable seat to be in.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek recently wrote about the hostile atmosphere that has taken hold at school board meetings across Tampa Bay and Florida, as the boards consider — sometimes repeatedly — whether to require masks in schools. In Pinellas County, new board member Caprice Edmond has had to listen to speakers accuse her family of “criminality” because she has pushed for a mask mandate. In Pasco, school board member Megan Harding and her husband were accused on social media of being “Q followers” — a reference to the far-right conspiracy movement Q-Anon — because she supports parental choice over masks.

A Sarasota board member received a message on Facebook suggesting her mother should have aborted her, while some school board meetings in other counties have erupted in physical altercations and protesters have shown up outside board members’ homes. That’s not protest — it’s harassment. Regardless of anyone’s feelings about masks in schools, personal attacks and threatening behavior have no place in the debate and only get in the way of helping resolve it.

Florida School Boards Association executive director Andrea Messina, who calls the current climate “vitriolic,” fears the downward spiral will steer good people from running for office. It’s a valid concern. Who would want to put up with grotesque messages from strangers on social media or strangers coming to your home to harass your family? Where’s the honor in being shamed in public forums? And who’s to say when empty insults will cross over into real threats?

Disagreeing with elected officials is a healthy exercise in keeping government accountable to the people. Protesting is a part of American life. But the school mask issue is a reminder of what happens when we stray beyond the guardrails of civility. Let it also be a warning not to allow this level of rancor to become a permanent stain on our civic life.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.