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Activists urge end to requirement that students wear facemasks

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of October 15, 2020)
Photo: Larisa Pakalin was among the parents speaking out during the Sept. 22 School Board Meeting against the School District policy requiring students to wear face masks in class when social distancing isn't possible.

Public school students would no longer be required to wear facemasks on campus to slow the spread of COVID-19 under new health and safety rules being considered by the Indian River County School Board.

Spurred by anti-mask activists, several School Board members said they want to phase out the mandatory mask requirement that has been in place since the new school year started Aug. 24.

School Board member Tiffany Justice and several parents claimed their individual legal right to determine whether their children must wear a facemask in school overrules the district’s authority to mandate facial coverings to protect public health and safety.

“I’m really concerned now about where we stand in violating the rights of parents and students,” Justice said during the Oct. 6 School Board meeting.

Justice threatened to call for a vote on making facemasks optional for students as soon as Tuesday, Oct. 13 unless a plan is put in place to rescind the requirement.

A group of parents notified the district they intend to file a legal challenge against the mandatory facemask rules, said Justice, who is leaving the board Nov. 17 after opting not to seek a second four-year term.

School Board members Teri Barenborg and Jacqueline Rosario said they want to gradually phase out the mandatory mask requirement.

“I personally think masks should be optional,” said board member Jacqueline Rosario. “I have a feeling we will be voting on that soon.”

Barenborg said she too opposes requiring students to wear masks in school but acknowledged the issue would have to be resolved with the unions.

“This is a negotiated point,” Barenborg said. “We have to do this carefully.

“Teachers have rights too,” Barenborg said. “We can’t mandate they come tomorrow and teach. I’m worried about the repercussions of what could happen if we do that quickly, of teachers not wanting to come to teach.”

A recent school district survey completed by 726 school-based staff members found 71 percent would not be comfortable allowing facemasks to be optional for students and staff, while 29 percent would be comfortable.

The leaders of the teachers and support staff unions said their members support the mandatory mask requirements for students and staff to protect themselves, their families and the students.

“The teachers have rights to be safe and to keep their families safe,” said Freeland, president of the 1,000-member Indian River County Education Association.

“I don’t see at what point your children are more important than my teachers’ children, or my teachers’ family, or my teachers’ health,” Freeland told the audience of about 25 people.

Mike Murray, president of the Communications Workers of America, Local 3180, said the district’s 700 bus drivers, food service workers, teacher assistants, maintenance workers and secretaries also support wearing facemasks in school.

“It is kind of cumbersome to wear, but I wear it out of respect for the staff and for the children just to help them feel safe,” Murray said.

A majority of the 2,036 parents who responded to a recent district survey, 58 percent, indicated they would not be comfortable allowing facemasks to be optional for students and staff. The other 42 percent would be comfortable.

The district should undertake a deliberate process of reviewing the facemask requirement with advice from a committee of local health and medical experts, said School Superintendent David Moore.

“Taking a ‘one-and-done, rip-off-the-band-aid’ approach is not the best way to go,” Moore said. “Masks have played a major role in minimizing the number of students who needed to be quarantined. We’ve had no outbreaks, we’ve had no closing of schools, no clusters.”

None of the 362 students quarantined as of Oct. 6 due to contact with infected students has tested positive for COVID-19, Moore said. That includes members of the football team who had been exposed to a teammate who tested positive.

“I am extremely comfortable with what we are doing in our schools to keep our children safe,” Moore said.

Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Peter endorsed the mask requirement in schools, but said he understands some people won’t be swayed by expert medical advice.

“Cleveland Clinic, in concert with the public Health Department, strongly supports masking, especially when we are in areas with other people,” Peter said.

“We also support social distancing,” Peter said. “There is a considerable literature, which is not insignificant, which does show it makes a difference. It makes a tremendous difference.

“We see this as an important measure,” Peter said. “We have stood up at every forum where we can stand up and advocated for masking, advocated for the appropriate physical distancing and advocated that we try to keep everyone in our community safe.”

Cleveland Clinic physicians, nurses and technicians treat COVID-19 patients every day on the hospital’s COVID floor and intensive care unit, Peter said.

“We’ve seen more people die of COVID than anybody else in this room,” Peter said.

“I get it that it’s a very charged issue at this time,” Peter said. “If we can’t use the evidence as the reason we do things, then it becomes somewhat more difficult to reach consensus.”

But the measured responses by Peter and Moore did not assuage the concerns of a group of parents at the Oct. 6 meeting who stubbornly opposed the mandatory mask rules.

Several cited research showing masks cause health and psychological issues for children, with some accusing medical and government officials of scheming to overstate the health emergency.

“Simply put, this is disaster fraud,” said Ruth Kuvlesky, presenting herself as a spokeswoman for the Indian River Freedom Coalition. “There is no emergency, there never was any emergency and there definitely is no pandemic. Please just do the right thing and remove mask requirements from this fake disaster.”

Another parent, Manny Bande, said “freedom is our first and most important thing. Safety doesn’t trump our freedom. At the end of the day, even if it was the bubonic plague, are we going to give up our freedom so we don’t get sick?”