Charlotte and DeSoto County school boards won’t revisit mask mandate

By Nancy J. Semon, The Daily Sun staff writer , Aug 18, 2021.

As Covid-19 cases soar in local schools, Charlotte and DeSoto school officials are not planning to discuss a mask mandate for students amid strong opposition from some parents and threats from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Sarasota County school officials have set an emergency meeting for Friday to discuss possibly imposing a mask mandate in defiance of DeSantis, who has threatened financial penalties against districts that impose mask mandates.

DeSantis, after learning he couldn’t take away the salaries of superintendents and board members who defy his order, said he would instead deduct an equal amount from the district’s budget.

Mike Riley, spokesperson for Charlotte County Public Schools, said the district is complying with the Florida Department of Education: Children can wear a mask, but it is not mandatory.

He said parents who are hesitant to have their children attend school can opt for Charlotte virtual school or home school them.

This week, 104 students and staff in Charlotte schools have tested positive for COVID-19.

Charlotte County School Board member Cara Reynolds told The Daily Sun she has three children in local schools. The oldest is vaccinated, and the other two are wearing masks to class.

“I encourage all families to reach out to their child’s pediatrician to get an expert opinion on whether or not their child should be wearing a mask at school or getting the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said.

In DeSoto County, Superintendent Dr. Bobby Bennett said, “We’re going to stay in line with the governor’s mandate; we will follow him 100%.”

“The good Lord has blessed our county,” he said, “out of 700 to 800 employees, only seven staff members” have tested positive and are unable to come to work.

And out of a student population of some 4,500, 44 students tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, he said.

Two sides of the issue

At a raucous Charlotte County School Board meeting in June, when the board was about to discuss masks in the schools, angry parents who were against mask mandates showed up with signs with slogans such as, “Unmask our kids, now we are united,” and “Faith over fear.”

But there were also parents on the other side, such as parent Tina Sunter, who on Wednesday emailed members of the School Board and Superintendent Steve Dionisio.

The mother of two, who has a medical background as a nurse midwife, Sunter told the Daily Sun she is concerned over the outbreak in her children’s schools.

“We are in our second week of school, and I have already received three Covid calls from my children’s schools. The first one was on the second day of class,” she said. “My biggest issue is that this is a public health issue and shouldn’t be a political issue.

“You wouldn’t go to an engineer and ask him to solve a pandemic, just as you wouldn’t see a lawyer about having a tooth pulled.”

In her letter she lauded the scientists, researchers, and medical professionals who have dedicated their lives to finding cures and healing others, and pointed to science, saying social distancing and wearing masks have been proven helpful in preventing infection and offering protection.

She said although the rate of children requiring hospitalization and even dying, is “still comparatively low,” she said higher infection rates overall will result in higher rates among children, and even death.

“It is not a matter of opinion or condition,” she wrote. “It will happen. Someone’s child will be the first.”

She said her older child has been vaccinated, but her son is too young to receive the vaccine.

Schools under pressure

So far, the only school in the area forced to close due to an outbreak is Babcock Neighborhood School, a charter school that is part of the Charlotte County district but has its own governing body.

Babcock was shut down for 10 days starting Monday after about a third of its staff, including the principal, called out sick, and about as many children were ill as well. Both the lower and upper schools are slated to reopen Aug. 26.

On Monday, the board held a special meeting to discuss a mask mandate and how to get around it without getting defunded.

The board opted to require masks for adults, although they weren’t sure it would hold up legally.