SBAC to address bullying of face mask wearing students

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) anticipated in 2020 that sending students back to school wearing face masks during the COVID-19 delta variant surge would lead to bullying behavior from anti-maskers.

That’s why the topic was addressed on the CDC website along with ways for schools and parents to address any antagonistic treatment students might receive.

On Tuesday night as the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) started the process of officially repealing its former face mask mandate, one parent called in asking for help for her 11-year-old son who is an elementary school student and is getting bullied for choosing to wear a face mask.

“I would seriously like to know what we are going to do,” the parent said during the public comment portion of the meeting via phone. “What are we going to do for our children who are getting bullied for wearing a mask? Because their mental health is being affected.”

The parent said her son Austin, who has called in to several SBAC board meetings throughout the pandemic to express his opinions, chooses to wear a face mask.

“He is bullied for wearing a mask and wanting to be safe for [his] sister and family and other children,” the parent said, and then asked the SBAC to create a plan for these children.

The caller’s concern was echoed by another speaker in the meeting and by SBAC members.

SBAC Chair Rob Hyatt then requested that the parent’s phone number be collected so that staff could handle her request and contact her for details.

According to the CDC’s website, “Stigma, discrimination, or bullying may arise due to wearing or not wearing a cloth face covering. Schools should have a plan to prevent and address harmful or inappropriate behavior. Not all families will agree with school policies about cloth face coverings. Schools should have a plan to address challenges that may arise and refer parents, caregivers, and guardians to CDC’s guidance on cloth face coverings.”

The CDC listed pointers to cope with bullying which it states is, “a form of youth violence and an adverse childhood experience,” and is defined as, “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

Those pointers from the website are:

  • Parents can help now by correctly wearing masks to show kids there is no stigma in wearing them
  • Schools can encourage mask wearing for parents to set a good example for kids
  • Elementary school teachers and staff should be there to help the kids put masks on correctly, play games that encourage mask wearing and use positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood that students will follow the rules
  • Middle schools are encouraged to show educational videos explaining why mask wearing is important, have classroom discussions about why masks are needed and use science class to show examples of how respiratory droplets spread infectious disease
  • High schools can show videos of celebrities wearing masks, ask students to write a short science paper on face coverings and create a competition for the best way to get the message out that masks are important
  • The CDC said it acknowledges that not all families agree with wearing masks, but it still wants schools to address those challenges as soon as kids get back to in-person learning.

As the SBAC began the process to repeal mask policy 8450.1 which was adopted in August 2020, some board members and parents have questions about what a repeal really means for the school district.

One parent questioned, how can a parent opt in? How does the school staff ensure that the parent communicates their wish to the school and that their child adheres to wearing a mask?

SBAC Vice Chair Tina Certain said the state has set up school districts to grapple with the issue by not following through on the details of the aftermath of repealing face mask mandates.

“We are in a sense forced to repeal a policy that has been in place for over a year,” Certain said. “That we as a board adopted to protect our students to create a safe and working learning environment. They created a quandary for us and it will be burdensome.”

Certain asked her colleagues if teachers now have to enforce mask wearing or keep track of those students whose parents want them to wear masks.

“When we start to lose local control, this is what that looks like,” she said. “No one thought up through the implementation of this and how this would work out for the parents that want their children to continue to wear facial coverings.”

Hyatt referred to the previous SBAC meeting. 

This board voted in the last meeting that we are going to follow all state orders and law, so I think the points brought up are important,” he said. “We need to make sure for parents who expect their children to do this (wear a mask). If we were able to do it the other way, we ought to be able to do it this way.”

SBAC member Dr. Gunnar Paulson suggested the SBAC have attorney David DeLaney research the topic to clarify the role that the SBAC should play in enforcing mask wearing for those students whose parents say they should be wearing masks.

“Let’s explain what we have to do for our constituents,” he said.

Hyatt agreed to have Delaney weigh in to “make sure we are committed to what we agreed to do and correctly address concerns brought up by parents. The intentions are to follow the law as we said we would at the last meeting, but address the concerns brought up by parents.”

The SBAC voted 5-0 to repeal the face mask rule and according to the SBAC attorney, a public hearing will be held during the Jan. 18, 2022, meeting followed by the second reading and adoption of the repeal on Feb. 1.

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