September 28, 2021

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Mask mandates spark chaos at school board meetings. Some parents say it’s ‘a matter of life and death.’ – USA TODAY

4 min read

Conflict over mask mandates boiled over in school board meetings across the country  in recent days as crowds of parents showed up both supporting and resisting the mandates. 

The backlash led to a New York school board meeting being canceleda Tennessee meeting devolving into chaos and name-calling and a Florida student pleading with leaders to protect the health of students. Previously, a North Carolina school board was “overthrown” in a protest earlier in August.

Emotions ran high on both sides, with some parents showing up to pressure local officials to mandate masks in defiance of state laws — others used debunked science to argue masks should not be required.

“The parents need to be the boss of what’s best for their children,” Anna Penola, a parent of four, told the Michigan State Board of Education, which decided to support local districts’ choices on masking. 

“This is a matter of life and death,” countered Mike Siegel, a parent of two elementary students in Austin, Texas, who urged his county to require masks.

As the delta variant of the coronavirus has run rampant throughout much of the country, more kids are becoming infected and ending up in hospitals. More than 90% of COVID cases affecting children now are due to the delta variant.

Experts don’t know if it’s causing worse symptoms in children than earlier strains of the virus, but they do know that it’s more contagious, and that kids under 12 are still ineligible for a vaccine.

The Backstory:More kids are getting COVID just as school resumes. 

Should kids wear masks in school?:These states have banned mandates despite experts’ pleas

They also know that wearing a mask is instantaneous protection from infection, even in environments where only partial masking is taking place.

In Florida, 12-year-old Lila Hartley of Jacksonville made headlines when she stood up to her school board and asked for a masking requirement. She’s vaccinated, but her 10-year-old brother Will is ineligible for a shot yet.

“I am so worried that if masks are not required, my brother could go to school one day and the next, be dying in the hospital,” Lila wrote on a wide-ruled notepad. “We are siblings so we have our rivalries, but I don’t know what I would do if he died, especially if it was caused by a place that means so much to him, school.” 

Should kids wear masks in school?:These states have banned mandates despite experts’ pleas

Her plea came after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order prohibiting masking mandates in schools, and threatened the salaries of local school officials who went against the order. Several counties, including Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Palm Beach have announced mask mandates in defiance of the governor.

Lila’s parents have supported her as she attended a rally outside her district headquarters and plans to lobby her principal to provide more outdoor seating at school. 

Most schools in the Petal School District in Mississippi are now implementing temporary mask mandates after a petition started by parents urged administrators to comply with CDC and state health officials’ recommendation for masking in schools.

But plenty of parents across the country are also up in arms against measures to limit the spread of the virus like masking and vaccine requirements in schools. Many are fueled by misinformation or the simple desire to see their children in a normal school setting.

An all-day, sometimes fiery meeting of the Michigan State Board of Education saw commenters spread misinformation about vaccines and masks, with some parents even threatening to remove their children from the public school system. It ended with the board not taking a firm stance at all.

Elsewhere, a Tennessee school board meeting descended into threats and insults as a mob of anti-mask parents formed, angry at local health care providers who recommended a mask mandate for a district just south of Nashville.

A video shows a masked man who spoke in favor of the mask mandate leaving the public meeting and a crowd of angry people surrounding and berating him as he walked to his car. 

In Colorado, more than 200 parents, children and community members attended an anti-mask rally outside a meeting for a school board that instituted a mask mandate. They were countered by a half-dozen teachers and others in the community who supported the mandate.

Ahead of a Brevard County School Board meeting in Florida where the board voted to leave masks optional, pro-mask and anti-mask advocacy groups clashed at protests, exchanging shouts and insults.

Despite the controversy, some facts are clear.

Kids are catching COVID, and at higher rates than before. There were 93,824 child COVID-19 cases nationwide reported July 29 through Aug. 5, 15% of the total weekly reported cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “After declining in early summer, child cases have steadily increased since the beginning of July,” the academy reports.

And, kids want to be able to stay in school. For many, the cost of mask mandates is worth it.

“It’s fine by me if it keeps everyone safe,” senior Eliel Acevedo told the Arizona Republic.

Contributing: Kate Mabus and Alia Wong, USA TODAY; The Detroit Free Press; The Austin-American Statesman; The Florida Times-Union; The Hattiesburg American; The Tennessean; The Fort Collins Coloradoan; and The Arizona Republic

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