I was a week late, but Wednesday, I watched the recent Pinellas County School Board meeting. It was fascinating and a bit distressing. Here’s a sampling of what I saw and heard:
- “I’m awake not woke,” on a T-shirt worn by a Dunedin man who delivered his bit of wisdom: “There’s an innate distrust of government that is overtaking our society. We feel that we have been lied to over so many things … There has to be some type of information that is trustable.”
- “You build your immune system, you wouldn’t get Covid.”
- The words “cure” and “ivermectin” uttered in the same sentence.
- An out-of-control parent being led away by two officers.
- The following pronouncements: “Fauci is a fraud;” and “Masks don’t work.”
This from speakers who rose to express their opposition to a proposed special meeting to discuss a mask mandate to protect Pinellas County public school students and staff. As you’ve probably heard, the proposal by School Board member Caprice Edmond went nowhere, though her effort was supported by colleagues Laura Hine and Nicole Carr.
Board members Carol Cook, Bill Dudley, Eileen Long and Lisa Cane were against holding such a meeting. Dudley, who appeared to question the efficacy of masks – he was not wearing one – mentioned a Georgia study of elementary school children that showed masks made no difference in preventing the coronavirus. A member of the public later challenged him, saying Dudley had “completely misrepresented” the study.
This week, though, brought reinforcements to the mask-wearing battlefront. Stanford Medicine reported that “a large, randomized trial led by researchers at Stanford Medicine and Yale University has found that wearing a surgical face mask over the mouth and nose is an effective way to reduce the occurrence of Covid-19 in community settings.”
But back to the Pinellas County School District. As of early Friday morning, its dashboard showed 2,859 confirmed coronavirus cases impacting 6,951 individuals since school reopened a few short weeks ago. Some parents question the accuracy of the data and worry about the district’s timeliness in alerting them about infections among their children’s classmates, teachers and other staff.
Even as some anti-mask speakers dismiss the seriousness of the contagious disease, there are concerned parents going to great lengths to protect their children who are too young to be vaccinated. For example, going to school at lunchtime to eat outdoors with their children. Many other parents have taken to Facebook to share up-to-date information about infections in their school communities.
Kyandra Darling, the parent of a 5-year-old kindergartner at James B. Sanderlin K-8 IB World School, is among those unhappy with the district’s response to the pandemic. When her son’s teacher was out, his class was divided in half and merged with two others to make two larger classes.
Also, she said the school told her it could not reveal whether the absence of her son’s teacher was Covid-related. Such information would only be relevant, she was told, if the teacher had been in close contact with her son, specifically, less than six feet for more than 15 minutes. That’s in keeping with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, according to the district’s website.
Darling spoke of another concern. She learned of two positive cases in the class of her cousin’s kindergartener. Parents were advised to pick up their children and quarantine them, yet, says Darling, when she went to pick up her son that day, he was playing outside with his cousin and others in the quarantined class.
Out of precaution, she told school officials that she would keep her son at home in quarantine. Those absences would be counted as unexcused, she learned. Furthermore, registration for virtual schooling was closed.
Anne Hathorn, whose children are in the third, fourth and fifth grades at Sanderlin, also learned of her own son’s Covid-19 exposure from a source other than the school district. The child had been sitting directly across from him. Fortunately, the child’s mother, a friend, called to notify Hathorn and she was able to put her son in quarantine right away. That was last Thursday. It’s been a week and she’s still not been officially notified of the exposure. Her son, meanwhile, has since tested negative.
“What if I didn’t know that child’s mom and what if he had tested positive?” Hathorn said, voicing concern that her son could have exposed others to the virus.
“This is not right that parents are finding out about this through their kids and through their friends and through their Facebook groups. This is dangerous. It is very frustrating. From an equity perspective, what does that mean for adults who are working and don’t have the flexibility to stay home?”
Pro-mask parents and supporters have united to form the Pinellas Safe Schools Coalition. Last week, they held a press conference in front of the school district’s administration office, a day before the board’s vote. And in keeping with the insanity surrounding the issue, an anti-masker took to a bullhorn to try to drown them out.
Julia Sharp describes the Safe Schools Coalition as “just regular, everyday parents who want to keep their kids safe.” She’s the mother of two young daughters at Sanderlin. “The fact that we are arguing over one of the simplest mitigation methods is laughable.”
Facebook groups now provide information parents want to know about how the virus is affecting their schools, said Sharp, director of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area, which is a partner organization in the coalition.
“A lot of our families, they want to be transparent with one another. They want to help each other. We have a really special community. All we talked about was what summer camps are you doing. Is there a pizza party today? Now it’s, did you hear that this teacher is out? By the way, my kid tested positive. My concern is that you end up having parents play detective. Where is that line between school transparency and individual privacy? It’s bad. It’s scary. I feel for the district staff that does not have the decision-making power.”
Another parent, Raegan Miller, told me she has several concerns. “Research is showing that masks are the most effective when they are used by everyone. Both of my children do wear masks to school. We need to be good citizens. It just comes to a point that we just need to love and protect each other and be a good citizen,” Miller said, mentioning those like her son’s well-loved former first grade teacher who has serious health issues.
And she spoke of her brother, an ICU nurse. “His mental health is suffering. He’s honestly just tired of having to put bodies in body bags … We’re in a different ball game this year. There are more children in school, less social distancing and a more contagious variant.”
She’s surprised that the board declined to discuss a mask mandate.
“I don’t know what it will take to move to the needle,” Hathorn said of the school board’s inaction. “It’s very discouraging, because you think that we live in a relatively progressive, relatively inclusive, science-supporting county. And I still think that. I think that there are more parents who support universal masking in schools than those who are opposed.”
Darling says the school board has chosen to champion the rights of those who oppose masks. “Their right outweighs my right. For them to fail to take any action at all is completely outrageous,” she said. “The school board has a constitutional right to provide a safe and effective learning environment. We need the leaders we elected into office to step up and do the right thing.”
As he gave the invocation before last week’s meeting, the Rev. Bob Martin, lead pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Largo, acknowledged the differing opinions about steps that should be taken to combat the coronavirus. He prayed that “the politics of the day” would not lead decisions, but love of neighbor. And that board members might be empowered to “lead courageously and without fear as they place the safety and wellbeing” of the district’s children and staff first.
I’m unsure whether the pastor’s prayers were answered that day. Anti-maskers spewed vitriol, made threats and were unashamedly disrespectful to Edmond, the sole Black school board member. They were dismissive of the knowledge and pleas of medical professionals, among whom were pediatricians and an emergency room physician.
Worst of all, they scoffed at the danger of the coronavirus to kids.