ECSD’s mask debate rages on (as does Covid)
by Jeremy Morrison
The on-campus mask debate continued Tuesday evening during the Escambia County School District School Board meeting — with some staking their argument on health concerns and others stressing personal “freedoms” — though the back-and-forth was purely academic, as there’s essentially zero chance of local officials enacting any type of mask order for students and staff.
Tuesday’s public debate adhered to fairly well-established ground. Proponents of a masks order cited the fact that Escambia has ceased its remote-learning option and kids under 12-years-old can’t receive vaccines yet. Meanwhile, opponents leaned into the concept of individual choice and offered up Bible verses and advised those sick with COVID to try Ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasites in animals that has been disproven as a coronavirus treatment.
Masks are not required in Escambia’s schools as a safety measure meant to limit the community spread of COVID-19 this year, and school board members have given no indication they are inclined to begin requiring such. At the state level, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to cut funding of any school district that requires students, teachers or staff to wear masks, though some districts have ignored the governor and pushed this issue into the courts.
Aaron Schneider thanked school board members for foregoing any mask order, unlike some other school districts located elsewhere around the country: “We’ve been holding off while the rest of the country has been going bananas.”
“You’ve kept this up for two years, and we appreciate you not bowing down to loud voices, to sentimentalism,” Schneider said.
Like others who voiced support for the school board’s current no-mask-order track, S Schneider framed the issue as a personal choice. He also questioned the coronavirus’s impact on schools: “I’m never hearing of any children in Escambia County dying of COVID.”
“We’re adults; we can tell our kids whether to wear a mask or not because we care about them,” he said. “And we care about them more than the school does.”
Several speakers would later reference Victoria Ramirez, a 15-year-old Booker T. Washington High School student who died of COVID. Speaking in favor of a district mask mandate, they told board members that it was their responsibility to protect students and staff, as well as the wider community, from the impacts of COVID.
“I implore this board to look at the science, not the politics,” said Walter Arrington, a graduate student at the University of West Florida, in favor of requiring masks in schools.
Arrington pointed to the U.S. Center for Disease Control guidelines and the bevy of safety measures — such as masks and social distancing — which Escambia has ditched this school year. He nodded toward the notion of personal choice, but said the district needed to protect students and staff based on the available data and science.
“While I respect somebody’s deeply held belief, and their belief on whether science is real or not, that’s on them,” said Arrington. “But what they can’t do is put someone else’s child at risk.”
Several doctors also spoke to board members during Tuesday’s meeting, urging them to require masks in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, as did Rebekah Jones — the former state COVID-19 data scientist who’s currently eyeing Rep. Matt Gaetz’s congressional seat — who read out a list of students and teachers who have died from the coronavirus.
Also voicing their concerns to the school board were several local high school students, relaying an academic environment stressed in the age of the coronavirus. Among them was Caroline Callahan, who started an online change.org petition pushing for the ECSD to reinstate a mask mandate for its schools following the COVID death of a Booker T. Washington High School student. She pointed out that although the pandemic rages on — with the Delta variant recently sending hospitalization numbers spiking locally and statewide — and at the same time, safety measures in place last year have been scuttled.
“And yet we are now crammed into these packed high school hallways without masks,” Callahan said. “I urge you to stop playing politics and do what is right for the safety of the students in this district.”
After nearly three hours of public comments, both opposing and favoring a mask requirement in local schools, Escambia’s school board members moved on to more routine business without further comment on the issue.