Palm Beach County School Board meets to discuss face mask policy

Public comments last more than 7 hours
Frank Barbieri
Posted at 7:24 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-20 01:07:45-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Palm Beach County School Board discussed the controversial measure regarding masks in schools during a heated and contentious meeting Wednesday evening.

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Protests on both sides were held by parents outside the meeting beforehand.

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There was an enhanced police presence and security measures outside and inside the building, a move the district said was done in an abundance of caution.

Dr. Alina Alonso held a presentation at the beginning of the meeting outlining data that showed an increase in children ages 5 to 14 years old testing positive for COVID-19.

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She said part of the problem stems from children under 12 not approved to receive the coronavirus vaccine yet.

If a person in a classroom gets COVID-19 once the mask policy is optional, Alonso said anyone without a mask and has not been vaccinated will have to quarantine. Alonso said studies are being done for kids ages 5 to 11 to receive the vaccine.

The school board said there were more than 100 speakers on Wednesday's meeting scheduled for public comment, which lasted more than seven hours.

School Board Karen Brill said they have received hundreds of emails on the subject.

Chairman Frank Barbieri stopped the meeting twice to tell people in attendance to put on their masks and asked police to remove offenders.

One speaker voiced her displeasure that barriers were put up outside, which prevented mask protesters from being closer to the school board building. Instead, they were allowed to protest along a sidewalk along the street.

Barbieri responded that no one was prevented from being on school property and denied access to protest.

Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy announced last week that face masks will be optional for students next school year, but will still be required for the remainder of the current academic year, which ends June 18.

School board member Marcia Andrews said Wednesday it is up to the school board to develop a mask and COVID-19 policies, not the superintendent.

Palm Beach COunty School Board Member Marcia Andrews speaks at meeting on May 19, 2021
Palm Beach County School Board Member Marcia Andrews speaks at a meeting held on May 19, 2021.

"It is on us to make policies work for all of our students' needs," Andrews said. "This is our job to look at our policies and make changes. ... We have to vote on these policies. It's not for the superintendent to make the recommendation."

Andrews called for a workshop to discuss the matter in an effort to develop a resolution to the issue.

School board member Erica Whitfield said if members decide to develop a new policy on masks she suggested it be addressed during the summer.

"I think changing policies in four weeks is very difficult, and policies are huge. They are not a small process," Whitfield said. "The idea that we could get it done for next year so that we can have optional masks makes me really happy."

Palm Beach County school board member Erica Whitfield speaks on May 19, 2021
School board member Erica Whitfield speaks on the possibility of modifying the school district's mask mandate.

Barbieri said it takes about three weeks to develop a new policy, but the superintendent can make changes more quickly.

Angry parents voiced their displeasure over the superintendent's decision to continue to require students to wear masks for the remainder of this school year.

Multiple speakers during the public comment portion of the meeting said they are considering removing their children from the school district if the mask policy is not revoked. At least one speaker also called for the board to remove Fennoy as superintendent while another called for his resignation.

The overwhelming majority of speakers at the packed-house meeting were in opposition to the mandatory masks, questioning their efficacy in combating the pandemic and saying they are hurting their children's physical and mental health.

"Your policy is causing long-term permanent damage to almost 200,000 children," Jennifer Schulter said at the meeting.

"We're tired of seeing our children coming home and complaining that their heads hurt, they can't concentrate," Christine Manolis said.

"Without mincing my words, what you are doing to children is hurting their mental health," one parent said.

However, one speaker, teacher and parent Meagan Bell, spoke in support of the school mask mandate.

Bell brought a petition that she said was signed by 2,585 Palm Beach County residents that support masks in schools until all students can have access to the vaccine.

"As a result of creating this petition, a group of parents, doctors and teachers and community members have come together to form a nonpartisan group called 'Masks 'til Vacc,'" Bell said. "We must continue universal masking until all students have the ability to access the vaccine."

One speaker later claimed she had 8,000 signatures in support of removing the school mask mandate.

The school board did not vote Wednesday on updating or changing the district's mask guidelines.

At around 12:15 a.m. board members came to a consensus that when outside students and teachers will not need to wear masks.

Board members did not make a decision about masks being optional in summer school.

There was no change to mask policy for the current school year.

The board discussed the controversy over the equity statement. Much of their discussion focus involved the language of 'white advantage' that is currently included in the statement.

The board also discussed the Baker Act process. General counsel weighed in on what they can talk about, with possible litigation.

The board is looking to continue to have their workshop and a special meeting next week to get more public input on the statement.

The meeting was adjourned shortly before 1 a.m.