School officials say they have no regrets amid mask mandate tensions
The debate over mask mandates has put local school officials in a precarious position as the number of coronavirus cases in some states surge to record levels.
Leaders in states like Florida and Texas have come out against the use of masks mandates, with some governors going as far as to ban such measures in public schools. However, some school boards have voted overwhelmingly to defy these limits, instituting mask mandates for students, teachers and staff.
These decisions have stoked tensions between frustrated parents who believe that their children should not be made to wear face coverings in school, and their school districts. But school officials remain defiant in the face of threats from both the state and local communities, maintaining that children’s safety comes first.
In Tennessee, tensions between parents and a local school board came to a fever pitch earlier this week when dozens of constituents gathered at a meeting to protest against the board’s decision to issue a mask mandate for elementary school students.
Parents were seen in bystander video heckling Williamson County School Board members and medical experts speaking out in support of the mask mandate. Following the meeting, a large group of constituents were seen surrounding a health care worker on his way to his car.
“We will find you,” a crowd member can be heard shouting.
“I was discouraged by the amount of anger and fear that was in that room, and the amount of distrust that the parents there had for science and the medical community. We were definitely treated like we’re the enemy,” Britt Maxwell, a parent and physician who spoke at the meeting, told The Hill. Maxwell has two children in the Williamson County school district who are not yet eligible to get vaccinated.
Maxwell said that he and his wife left the meeting early, fearful for their safety. As they were leaving, he said one woman put her hand in his face and called him a “traitor.”
“I don’t want my kids to wear masks either. I hate that my kids have to wear masks,” Maxwell said. “I hate it so much, but my feeling is what’s worse than having to wear a mask is having schools shut down and kids having to learn from home, which doesn’t work.”
Following the heated incident, the Williamson County School Board issued a statement saying there is “no excuse for incivility.” The board ultimately passed a mask requirement for elementary school students despite the outburst, according to The Tennessean.
The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office has opened an investigation into that evening, with Sheriff Dusty Rhoades calling for “a more civil discourse” in a statement to The Hill.
Gov. Bill Lee (R-Tenn.) issued an order earlier this year barring counties from enacting mask mandates. However, it is unclear if this order also applies to school boards.
Lee’s office told The Hill that he does not believe in school mask mandates and supported allowing parents to choose, though they did not say if he would move to block these schools from issuing such measures.
Some school officials in favor of mask mandates have found themselves in direct opposition to their governors.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has banned mask mandates in schools, stating that it should be a parents’ choice whether a child should be made to wear a face covering. His executive order goes so far as to penalize officials by withholding salaries or funding should they institute a mask mandate.
His office could not be reached for comment by The Hill.
But in the Sunshine State, the surge of coronavirus infections have placed school districts in a tough position. Florida is currently the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., where an increase in COVID-19 cases has been exacerbated by the delta variant.
On Wednesday, the state reported its highest daily COVID-19 caseload yet at 24,869, per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Florida officials told The Hill that because of these conditions, the benefits of a mask mandate outweigh the risk of penalization from the governor.
“The money, the compensation that we would receive is nothing compared to the loss I would be feeling if we had a student to become very ill, to have to be placed on a ventilator, or more importantly — death,” Leanetta McNealy, chair of the Alachua County School Board said.
According to McNealy, the school board received some opposition before her board passed a mask mandate, but the response from the public has since grown to be more positive.
Sarah Leonarodi, a member of the Broward County School Board in southern Florida, told The Hill that she has no regrets in supporting a mask mandate, and called on DeSantis to trust locally elected officials to make decisions for their own communities.
“He feels very strongly about, you know, local control from the federal government and I wish he would feel that strongly about local control in our smaller communities, like our school boards and our municipalities,” said Leonardi.
Like DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued an executive order banning mask mandates in the Lone Star State.
One Texas school official echoed Leonardi’s call.
“Just let us get through this ugly period and then go back and put your order back in place,” superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District Michael Hinojosa said when asked what he would say to Abbott. “And just allow us in local communities to make decisions that are in our best interest.”
Clint Bond, the external and emergency communications executive director at Fort Worth Independent School District said that the district was focused on what they believed was best for their students even in the face of possible legal action.
“The FWISD is focused on doing what is the best thing for children. Our mission is to prepare students for success in college, career, community, and military success,” Bond said.
Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, said in a statement that localities issuing mask mandates were “violating parental rights” and the governor’s executive order.
“Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for mask mandates is over; now is the time for personal responsibility. Parents and guardians have the right to decide whether their child will wear a mask or not, just as with any other decision in their child’s life,” Eze said.
“The best defense against this virus is the COVID vaccines, and we continue to strongly encourage all eligible Texans to get vaccinated,” she added.
Tensions between local officials and the state are also rising in Columbia, S.C., after the city’s mayor, Steve Benjamin, issued a mask mandate for students and staff in daycares and elementary and middle schools amid the spread of the delta variant. The mandate was approved by the city council.
Benjamin told The Hill in an interview that the move was necessary because children under the age of 12 have not been authorized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
State officials have voiced their opposition to the move.
In a letter sent to Benjamin and the city council, the state’s Attorney General Alan Wilson (R) said the mask mandate violated a budget proviso. Wilson asked that it be rescinded or amended. He added that legal action would be taken if the city failed to act.
The budget proviso, which became effective July 1, says that “no school district, or any of its schools, may use any funds appropriated or authorized pursuant to this act to require that its students and/or employees wear a facemask at any of its education facilities.”
Benjamin said that no state funding would go toward masks. The Columbia mayor told The Hill that he believes the city has the authority to impose the mask mandate, and “that can’t be trumped by an illegal budget proviso that attempts to restrict trained educators’ ability to keep our children safe.”
Benjamin has said he has heard from many who support the mandate, and he said what he saw following the school boarding meeting in Tennessee was “sad” and “offensive.”
But despite the threat of legal action, the mayor vowed to keep defending the mandate.
“…We’re prepared to enforce our order and we’re prepared to defend it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that morally, that a community willing to do anything and everything to protect its children, is a community that any one of us would want to live in,” Benjamin added. “So we’re doing the right thing, although in some corners, it may not be politically popular.”
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