Lila Hartley is heading into seventh grade next week. She’s excited about history class and trying to figure out how to make more friends when she gets back to in-person school.
But first, the 12-year-old feels she has to stand up for her little brother and all children too young to be vaccinated against coronavirus.
“It’s definitely a big deal to me,” she said. “So many people are dying and getting sick, and masks just keep people safe. My brother isn’t old enough to get the vaccine. So he’s, like, vulnerable.”
Lila said her 10-year-old brother Will was the first person she thought about when she heard that Duval County Public Schools in the northeast of Florida would not require masks for students in the upcoming school year. Covid-19 cases are soaring in her county and her state and she’s worried.
“The Delta variant being even more contagious, and putting more people, younger people into the hospital … My brother is unvaccinated and if masks aren’t required and he gets sick, what will happen to him? What will happen to all of the children who can’t get vaccinated?” she asked.
Perhaps Lila would have preferred to watch “Hamilton” again to memorize more of the lyrics and staging that bring together her twin loves of history and musical theater. But instead she grabbed her writing pad and pencil and wrote to the Duval County School Board and Superintendent expressing her concerns, starting with her brother.
“We are siblings so we have our rivalries, but I don’t know what I would do if he died, especially if it was caused by a place that means so much to him, school,” she wrote, advocating for the use of masks in classrooms.
Only one school board member responded, she told CNN.
Her little brother thinks the letter was good. He too finds the mask issue frustrating.
“I try not to dwell on it, but it’s a big precaution of mine. That’s why at school I wear two masks because I want to make sure I don’t get sick,” Will said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order Friday banning schools from requiring masks for students. The order threatens to withhold state funding if schools do not comply. According to the governor’s office, the move was meant to “protect parents’ freedom to choose whether their children wear masks.”
DeSantis’ move came two days after the Broward County School Board unanimously voted to require masks in the upcoming school year. Broward County Public Schools, the second-largest district in Florida, has since announced it intends to comply with the governor’s executive order.
Duval County Superintendent Diana Greene told reporters Tuesday she is doing everything to stop the spread of Covid-19 in schools that she legally can, given the governor’s executive order. She is requiring teachers to wear masks for the next 30 days, something the governor’s order does not prohibit.
“We have been given an executive order that will dictate what we can and can’t do,” she said. “But I am still able to strongly recommend. I’m still able to model the behavior that I hope to see in employees and students.”
Greene said she is vaccinated and plans to wear a mask indoors.
But she is not going to see that example followed by all.
Quisha King has no plans to send a mask to school with her two daughters. She is a part of the local chapter of the nationwide group Moms For Liberty and believes requiring masks in school is government overreach.
“The best and most fair thing to do is to give parents the option of whether they want their children to wear a mask or not,” she said. “It gives each person the opportunity to do what they feel is best for them.”
Matt Hartley, Lila and Will’s dad, takes issue with that approach.
“I say that, bluntly, you’re wrong on the science about that,” he said. “But also, I care about your kid as much as I care about my kid and I don’t want any kid to risk being hospitalized, or getting long Covid symptoms, or just being part of our community spread.”
Dr. Bethany Atkins, a pediatrician in Jacksonville, said that having all children wear a mask is the best protection for the entire school population.
“We know now that masks not only prevent me from passing it to you, there also is you not giving it to me,” she said. “We do know that vaccinated people do have the possibility of transmitting the virus, even though they’re not sick.”
On Tuesday evening, about 70 parents and community members, mostly masked, filled the Duval County Public School board meeting chamber plus two overflow rooms for a scheduled board meeting. Dozens spoke directly to board members, expressing strong opinions about the schools’ mask policy.
“We’ve all lived with masks for the past year, what’s another 30 days?” asked Rebecca Cardona from Teamsters Local 512. “Let’s keep everyone safe by mandating masks on school buses also.”
A few minutes after Cardona spoke, retired Duval County school teacher Betty Bentley took to the podium insisting board members should leave mask decisions to parents.
“Children and parents deserve that right to decide whether they want to use a mask or not. Teachers also deserve that right,” Bentley said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention both recommend universal indoor masking at schools, in part, to protect unvaccinated students and stop the spread of Covid-19.
The school board finally voted that students not wearing masks will have to opt out through their parents or guardians.
King isn’t worried about her daughters contracting Covid-19, she said, because they’re healthy.
If a child doesn’t have comorbidities, Atkins said there is a smaller chance of an adverse outcome should they become infected. But she warns, “The chance is not zero.”
Parents on both sides of the issue expressed concerns over the mental health of children during the pandemic, emphasizing their strong desire for a sense of normalcy.
King became emotional to CNN as she explained how one of her daughters was not able to fully participate in a vocal performance that required a lot of hard work and accomplishment.
“They missed out on a lot of different things that they were looking forward to doing,” she said. “They’re trying to make the best of it themselves. It’s tough, all the way around. It’s not easy.”
Lila Hartley, who includes being secretary of state among her ambitions, pushes back.
“It’s OK to have your own opinions. You can think what you want to think,” she said. “But also, these masks have proven that they’re saving people.”
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