Published On: Fri, Nov 5th, 2021

School board members discuss public commenters’ opposition to mask mandate

Since the beginning of the pandemic, safe instruction methods for K-12 schools have led to intense debates where school board meetings have become common battlegrounds.

The Palm Beach County School Board meets every month, and hours of these meetings are filled with public commentators who largely oppose the mask mandate that the county enacted this fall. The mandate does not allow students to opt-out of mask-wearing.

The board recently released its three main criteria for reinstating the opt-out option: the COVID-19 vaccine must be made available for children ages five through 11, average new weekly cases per 100,000 people must be at the moderate level of transmission risk, and the COVID-19 weekly positivity rate must be at the moderate level of transmission risk. 

A group of pediatricians working with the board suggested that all of these criteria must be met for four weeks; however, board member Debra Robinson, District 7, said she’d be interested in removing the mandate if these conditions are met for two to three weeks.

Dr. Alina Alonso, Palm Beach County’s director of health, said on Nov. 2 that the county is currently at the substantial level, a level directly above moderate. 

Alonso said she hopes that in the coming weeks, the county will fall into the moderate level as cases have continued to decline. 

While the mask mandate in schools could be over soon, board members have had to face public commenters shouting vulgarities for months. 

Erica Whitfield, District 4, said that she’s received threatening messages on social media, over the phone, and in person.

“There’s also been a woman [who] told me that she thought Jesus would like to see me have a millstone tied around my neck and thrown into a lake so I could be drowned. That was in front of my baby, my one-year-old,” Whitfield said.

She said enduring the comments can be exhausting and as a mother of two, it feels impossible to find the time to relax.

“It feels like I’m in an abusive relationship with our community. I dread going in [to the meetings] and then I go and I get yelled at. I know what’s going to happen, and then I go back and I do it again,” Whitfield said.

Robinson said that she has also felt concerned for her safety and noted how people’s comments can be disheartening.

“It’s discouraging. I understand passion, I really do, but I just find it to be unfortunate,” Robinson said. 

She compared the mask mandate to texting and driving laws– they protect an individual as well as those around them. 

“I keep looking at people and expecting them to care about their neighbors, their friends,” Whitfield said. “If I said, ‘you could save somebody’s life today, would you do it?’ I always thought everyone would, and I was wrong.”

Public commenters have called the board’s actions illegal and said that members should be imprisoned. Gov. Ron DeSantis passed an executive order banning mask mandates with no opt-out options. There has been a legal debate as to who has the power to make decisions regarding mask mandates, the governor or local municipalities. 

In response to mask mandates, the Florida State Board of Education approved plans to remove the equivalent of about a month’s worth of pay for school board members from the budget in eight different counties, including Palm Beach.

Adults are not the only speakers present at board meetings. 

Fiona Lashells, a second-grader, has spoken at several meetings and was featured on Fox News with DeSantis. She has accused the board and Superintendent Mike Burke of bullying. Lashells has been suspended for over 30 days due to her refusal to wear a mask at school.

“You, the school board, are being a bully to me,” she read off of a paper at the Oct. 20 meeting. “I’m still going to stand up for what I believe in and do the right thing for all the kids, not just myself. I hope you all go to jail for doing this to me. My family is proud of me. Mr. Burke, I want to say you suck, but instead, your actions suck.”

Whitfield said that Fiona seems like an amazing girl but described her words as hurtful and disrespectful.

“This child has been taught that it’s appropriate to speak to any adult that way,” Robinson said. “The other thing was the level of vitriol. I’m good with disagreement, but as I say, we could disagree without being disagreeable.”

Despite the backlash, neither board member expressed regret regarding the mandate.

“I have to start with saving lives. I just do. That’s just where I have to stand,” Robinson said.

The superintendent and other board members did not respond to or declined requests for  comment.

About the Author

- Gillian is a senior studying Multimedia Journalism and Communication Studies at Florida Atlantic University. She is currently the Editor-in-Chief at the University Press.

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