WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The controversial face mask debate in Palm Beach County schools is taking center stage on Wednesday as dozens of parents protest and demand the school district's facial covering mandate be ended immediately.
Last week, Superintendent Dr. Donald Fennoy announced 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 on June 18.
In addition, facial coverings will be mandatory for high school graduation ceremonies next month, as well as Summer School.
But for many parents who are part of the "Unmask Palm Beach County Kids" group, that is not soon enough. They want the mask policy eliminated immediately in Palm Beach County schools.
The group rallied outside the School District of Palm Beach County's headquarters on Forest Hill Boulevard in West Palm Beach ahead of Wednesday night's school board meeting.
"I have not believed in the masks from the beginning," said one woman at the rally. "I retired from health care last year. I was there 40 years, and I know that the masks don't work. And I'm concerned for the children."
"This forced masking of children, first of all, it's FDA regulated, it's a medical device. And it was allowed and approved under emergency use, which means that the parents ought to be informed and they have a right to refuse," another parent added. "This is being mandated. A medical device, a medical treatment mandated at the hands of public service. It's disgusting, it's despicable, and it has to end."
Early Wednesday morning, fencing was set up along the sidewalk leading to the front door of the district office, as well as by the front entrance on Forest Hill Boulevard.
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A pro-mask group of parents is organizing as well, encouraging supporters to call and email school board members and speak out at Wednesday's board meeting, urging school district officials to keep the mask mandate in place.
The "Masks Til Vax" group is asking for the mandate to remain "until all children have access to the vaccine and community spread is very low."
Anti mask protest underway outside Palm Beach Co School District headquarters. Parents want district policy on masks to end. pic.twitter.com/xGjbW7jcUe— Matt Sczesny WPTV (@WPTVMatt) May 19, 2021
School board member Marcia Andrews met with members of the "Unmask Palm Beach County Kids" group last week to hear their concerns. The meeting happened just hours before the superintendent's announcement about next year's face mask policy.
On the school board's agenda for Wednesday, Andrews has two discussion items related to facial coverings and COVID-19.
According to the agenda, Andrews "will discuss asking for a Workshop to review the following policies to determine the Board's ability to suspend, revoke, rescind, modify, etc., as needed, based on information available from the CDC, state, and/or local authorities: Policy 1.03 School Board Meetings; Policy 2.065 Visitation Protocols on District Property Due to COVID-19; Policy 3.82 Employee Protocols due to COVID-19; and Policy 5.326 Student Protocols due to COVID-19."
A second item from Andrews said she will "discuss parental options and/or flexibility regarding mask wearing and CDC guidelines to include: ESE (IEP) students needs; ELL students needs; students with underlying health issues; students given discipline referrals; summer school participation; and mental, social and emotional needs."
In anticipation of Wednesday's protest, the district posted rules for school board meetings on its website, saying:
"The School District of Palm Beach County supports the peaceful assembly of persons to express themselves regarding matters concerning District students, employees, and the community. Please be respectful of all persons who are present on School District property.
In an effort to keep all participants and District employees safe, everyone must obey all lawful orders issued by law enforcement, which may include remaining or moving to a specific area or location, lowering voices for safety reasons or other safety related commands.
However if such peaceful assembly results in a disturbance, including but not limited to an affray, riot or aggravated riot as defined in Florida Statute 870.01(2021) or mob intimidation as defined in Florida Statute 784.0495 (2021), those persons may be subject to arrest, and shall be held in custody until brought before the Court.
Additionally, please note that persons who enter School District property are subject to video and/or audio surveillance. The School District expressly reserves the right to trespass persons who engage in disorderly conduct on School District property pursuant to Florida Statute 810.08.
Thank you for helping to maintain decorum and the orderly conduct of School District business."
Currently, the School District of Palm Beach County requires all students to wear facial coverings "inside District buildings, riding on school buses, and walking through open-air hallways during class changes," but not when eating and drinking while seated.
In addition, "students in grades K-12 are not required to wear facial coverings during outdoor physical education classes if maintaining social distancing of at least six feet or more is possible."
Students can also remove their masks during outdoor activities "if social distancing is maintained."
The superintendent's major decision last week regarding face masks came on the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear facial coverings indoors.
"Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic."
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In neighboring Martin County, school board members voted last week to require masks inside schools for the remainder of the academic year, which ends on May 28. After that, facial coverings will be optional for the Summer Transition Phase starting on June 1.
In Okeechobee County, face masks are now recommended but not required inside schools.
Officials with the School District of Indian River County said they're planning to make masks optional for students next school year.
St. Lucie Public Schools has not announced any official changes to its face mask policy, but said school leaders are continuing to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic as we approach the 2021/22 academic year.
Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso on Tuesday said COVID-19 cases are increasing among children locally.
Alonso said 15% of new COVID-19 cases in Palm Beach County on May 16 were among 5 to 14-year-olds. That's an increase from 10% of new cases in the same age group two weeks ago.
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Currently, anyone 12 and older is authorized to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are only for those 18 and older.
Alonso said the increase in cases among children is particularly concerning because many of them are unable to get inoculated.
"This is a group that's gonna be the hardest to vaccinate," Alonso said. "This is where the problem lies, and this is where we have to concentrate our efforts, especially for these children that will not be able to get vaccinated yet."
With the School District of Palm Beach County planning to return to traditional in-classroom instruction next school year and eliminate distance learning related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Commissioner Maria Sachs on Tuesday questioned whether the vaccine should be mandated for children.
"Only the private schools are able to do that," Alonso said. "At this point, there's no federal or state resolution to go in that direction."
Alonso advised against a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for brick-and-mortar students in the public school system, saying it would be too controversial of a move.
"Especially now, anything that you mandate becomes a lot of resistance and, I think, detracts from the advantage of the vaccine," Alonso said. "We're living in a very unique time. And at this time, that would not be a recommendation."
For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine for children, click here.