SARASOTA, FL — Students, teachers and staff members must continue to wear masks covering their mouth and nose whenever they’re indoors on Sarasota County Schools property, the school board decided in a 3-2 vote at its Tuesday board meeting.
Chair Caroline Zucker, Vice Chair Shirley Brown and board member Jane Goodwin voted in favor of the measure. Board members Eric Robinson and Bridget Ziegler cast the no votes against it.
“Our district dashboard shows us that the masks are holding down the spread in our schools,” Brown said. “This policy will help us get to the end of the year. It will show our students, our parents and our teachers and our staff that we care about your safety. That is what’s important. We know that masks will keep us safe, and I’m going to support this based on the science, not on the emotion, not on the politics, but on the science that I’ve learned.”
Meanwhile, Goodwin said that not only does she “believe science,” she also listens to the district’s teachers, she said. She’s heard from many teachers and parents that they want a “stark mandate” regarding masks.
“I think it will make our teachers feel more comfortable and more confident,” she said.
And Zucker said she’s “received more emails in favor of masks than against masks.” Only about 25 percent of the emails she received have protested masks in the schools, she said.
Anti-mask protestors gathered outside the meeting room at the school board chambers in Sarasota on Tuesday. Fifty-seven people signed up to speak during the public comment segment of the meeting, most of them commenting on the issue of whether masks should be required in Sarasota schools. They were split for and against the matter. One speaker was even escorted out for refusing to wear a mask, while others were asked to properly wear theirs.
Lawsuit Against Masks Pending
The school board’s decision comes as a parent group plans to sue the school district. They’ve recently raised more than $11,000 on GoFundMe.
The fundraiser description stated, “It is not the role nor responsibility of the public school district to make medical decisions for all families universally. Each family has the right and freedom to make medical decisions independently. We expect and demand that those rights are recognized by the Sarasota County School district and its board.”
Though the fundraiser’s organizer, Amy Cook, hasn’t replied to Sarasota Patch’s request for comment yet, she posted in the GoFundMe comments that they plan to file the lawsuit by Friday.
Medical Experts Explain Mask Benefits
At Tuesday’s meeting, the school board invited several medical experts to discuss masks in schools, including Charles H. Henry, a health officer with the State Department of Health in Sarasota. He said Florida’s surgeon general recommends wearing facial coverings over the mouth and nose when people are unable to social distance both indoors and outdoors.
Studies indicate masks “may reduce the number of infectious particles put out into the air,” he said, adding that there is “some protection for the wearer,” as well, based on the mask’s material. The point is, he said, “We still recommend the use of face masks.”
The state has been able to move through different phases of reopening in a safe manner because of protocols like social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing, Henry said. “Those things remain very important to our strategy in terms of keeping infection rates as a reasonable level until we have both an effective and a widely available vaccine that’s been distributed.”
He added that the positivity and hospitalization rates in Sarasota County are “trending up slowly.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Manuel E. Gordillo, an infectious disease specialist, expressed concerns about children spreading COVID-19.
“The problem that I see with young children is they live with parents and they live in a community and our community is one where there is a lot of elderly, and poor and disadvantaged populations,” he said, as well as those “susceptible to severe illness.”
Children “are probably at low risk by themselves,” Gordillo added, “but they don’t live in a bubble. They live in a community.”
Public Comments For/Against Mask Policy
During the public comment portion of the evening, Steel Williams, a McIntosh Middle School student, questioned the need to wear masks, calling them “unnatural.”
“Our bodies were built to make immunities to diseases and viruses. That’s how God made us,” he said.
Williams told the board that extending the mask mandate is taking “the dictator approach, which is, ‘I’m a bully, I’m in charge and because I said so.’”
Amy Grotz, who works for the school district, said she supports the pending lawsuit against the district, and said a new survey needs to be distributed to teachers and staff.
“We can’t rely on the old data,” she said.
Meanwhile, parent Christine Woodward, said she has concerns about how masks affect the health of her children. Her biggest concern is that masks “increase resistance to breathing,” she said.
There haven’t been any studies on “the long-term effects of masks on children,” she said, adding, “I guess that’s what this is right now. We’re kind of in the middle of that experiment.”
She suggested school board members compromise by allowing students to remove their masks when seated. She noted that there are already desk shields in place.
“You’re going to see so much more unity,” Woodward said.
Just as many speakers were in favor of the district’s mask requirements.
“The anti-mask people are not the majority,” said Lisa Singerson, adding, “This is not a matter for vote, opinion or choice. It’s a matter for scientists and medical professionals. These are the people who overwhelmingly agree that wearing masks will help reduce the spread of this virus.”
Meanwhile, Paulina Testerman said those speaking out against masks “don’t have any formal education or true scientific knowledge of what they’re even talking about.”
She suggested the board makes its decisions based only on what the experts think and that they stop sending surveys to parents.
“There’s a simple reason why I don’t ask my accountant to fix my car and why I don’t ask my electrician to file my taxes,” she said. “I rely on experts in their field. Let’s leave the decision making to true professionals and not a bunch of loudmouth non-experts who simply like to hear their own voice.”
Scientist Gretchen Lovewell said she fell ill with COVID-19 earlier this summer. This compelled her to speak at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Just because a faction might be the loudest in the room doesn’t mean they represent the majority,” she said. “More importantly they do not represent the science behind how to keep our students, staff and teachers safe.”