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Masks Remain Optional In St. Johns County Schools Amid Parents’ Push For Change

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Heather Prediletto
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Doctors and parents urge St. Johns County School Board to implement stricter mask rules.

Masks were not on the agenda when the St. Johns County School Board met Tuesday, but after hearing from more than 100 concerned parents and community members on both sides of the masking debate over a period of six hours, the board reiterated its position: Masks are optional, which is in line with state rules. 

Superintendent Tom Forson said he “strongly encourages” mask use, but School Board attorney Frank Upchurch III said an executive order from Tallahassee, which blocks districts from requiring mask use, is clear.

“If we were to defy this mandate, it wouldn’t surprise me if the district were sued by an anti-masker,” Upchurch said. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold funding for districts that impose mask mandates, and to withhold salaries from specific school board members who defy his executive order. 

His order goes against the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend that all people who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine receive one, and that everyone older than age 2 wear masks in schools.

Parents and doctors worried about the virus’ spread urged the St. Johns County School Board to implement stricter mask rules. An online petition calling for mandatory masking had garnered nearly 5,000 signatures ahead of Tuesday morning’s board meeting.

“I’m speaking for myself along with my colleagues who work at Baptist Hospital, Mayo Hospital, UF and Wolfson [Children’s Hospital], who are at this very moment triaging patients in the hallway, treating very sick people all over the hospital, and doing their very best to keep them alive,” said Dr. Nancy Staats. “I know that some decisions in life are difficult: Whether to take this job or that job, go to this school, that school. But honestly, whether to protect children with masks in St. Johns County is really not that hard. This is the worst time in Florida. We are on fire, absolutely on fire.” 

“My basic duty is to keep my child safe,” said St. Augustine parent Tara Hapke. “But it feels like we are sending them into a war zone unprotected.” 

Anti-mask parents heckled Hapke as she spoke. 

“Decorum and order!” called Board Chair Patrick Canan. 

Those opposing mask mandates worried about infringements on personal liberty and parents’ rights, along with the difficulties students would face trying to study and bond with their classmates while wearing them. 

“It is not fair to punish the students and families that choose fresh air over masks by implementing a mandate,” said Kendra Marks. “As a parent, I should not be told by the government, the school board, or any other parents how to raise my children, so stop pushing a mandate that keeps me from doing what I see best.” 

The latest surge in the coronavirus, which is driven by the more contagious delta variant, has put stress on pediatric medical care in the Jacksonville area. 

There were 16 COVID-19 patients at Wolfson Children's Hospital as of Tuesday, according to WJCT News partner News4Jax, with four of the kids in the intensive care unit. 

After listening to all the speakers Tuesday, Board Chair Canan weighed in on what he had heard. 

“There’s two major things colliding in my head: One is the parental right, which I totally understand — I have three children — versus the community right to protect the community and the children as a whole. Those are clashing head on,” Canan said. “What also is clashing head on is the state and the local. In my opinion, this is a decision that should be made at the local level. … But insead, we've been restricted by the state government from doing what we may otherwise not do.” 

When classes begin next Monday, the desk shields from last year will be gone. Desks will be spread 3 feet apart, and classrooms and other high-touch areas will be cleaned frequently. Quarantine policies are in place for when students are exposed to the virus. 

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.