Public Opinion Seen On Children's Faces

Under The Hood

Photo courtesy Sarasota County Schools.

It seemed a risky move a week ago when the Sarasota County School Board voted in favor of a no opt-out mask policy. The district became the first in a Republican-majority county (grant it one with a majority Democrat School Board) to defy Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order banning mask mandates in public schools.

But a judge’s order verified what many on the side of masks long suspected. The Governor could not force school districts not to take action to limit the spread of COVID-19 and the Board of Education had no authority to withhold funding from schools to deny superintendents and school board members their rightful salaries for doing their job. More recent scuttlebutt about actually removing elected officials from office for “violating the law” just wasn’t going to pass muster in the courts.

Expect a mandate to stay in place in schools until positivity rates go down.

That ruling shows the follow of an absolutely brutal public opinion campaign waged online against School Board Chair Shirley Brown. A former Democratic lawmaker, she argued last week the Department of Education could not suddenly decide, as DeSantis maintained, that the just-passed Parents’ Bill of Rights allowed an order letting parents defy mask mandates, even though the law never mentions face coverings. Indeed, Brown predicted a judge would note the very language of the Parents’ Bill of Rights includes mention of public health concerns overriding decisions on individual health.

“There’s basically an opt out of the Parents’ Bill of Rights if there is a compelling state interest,” Brown said. At a time when the schools are seeing roughly 200 COVID-19 infections a day and more students have tested positive in the 2021-’22 School Year (yes, the one that started this month) than in the entire 2020-’21 School Year, there’s a case to made to mitigate spread.

But anti-mask advocates attacked Brown in particular for the 3-2 mandate vote, even though she isn't seeking reelection. One group put faux wanted posters online that said she was abusing kids. Intense rhetoric is nothing new in the political world, but Brown feels the attacks turned too personal, and the ruling also paints them as wrong-headed. “I don’t expect an apology,” she said, “but I do expect harassing emails and social media posts like that to be taken down.”

Opponents of mask policy still hope to prevail in court on appeal. School Board member Bridget Ziegler, who voted against the mandate, found the ruling misguided. “It’s pretty wild to see a ruling on a law that is literally titled The Parents’ Bill of Rights attempt to provide additional protections for the government over parents,” Ziegler said. She said this underscores how important it is for parents to be engaged in the lawmaking process and to vote for parent advocates to serve on the School Board.

Of course, prents should be involved. Politicians, though, should note something else afoot. Forbidding mask mandates isn't just legally shaky, it’s also terrible politics. Three statewide Florida polls came out this month showing strong support for requiring masks in school (St. Pete Polls 62% support, Quinnipiac University 60%, The Listener Group 75%).

And if you don’t believe that, look at a classroom. One of the most surprising images I’ve seen in the delta surge was taken of students at the start of school, before Sarasota’s mandate was in place, showing up  masked of their own volition. School board chambers across Florida may brim with anti-mandate activists calling officials Nazis, but there’s also public opinion that can be measured looking at children’s faces. While the mandated masks take effect Monday, Sarasota school leaders report most children have already covered up. Most parents just want their children to be safe. 

It's worth remembering, when opponents accuse School Board members of child abuse for masking kids, they are also accusing most parents in the county of the same offense.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ MEDIA.


Photo courtesy Sarasota County Schools.

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