A school board meeting in one Florida community turned physical this week, with protestors for and against a mask mandate pushing, shoving, and fighting one another.
On Monday, protesters in Lee County gathered outside of the school district headquarters in Fort Myers, where the board was discussing a 30-day mask mandate imposed by the superintendent earlier that day. The two sides brought dueling megaphones and signs that read “Free Kids Faces” and “Save Our Students,” according to news reports. At one point, the anti-mask protesters chanted “we will not comply.”
Local television news reported that “people are pushing and shoving each other outside of this meeting,” and that Lee sheriff’s deputies were breaking up physical fights. A local NBC affiliate captured video of what appeared to be a man and a woman attempting to hit one another.
At one point, a woman shoved two doctors into the parking lot while they were attempting to enter the meeting to speak in favor of the mask mandate. Video of the encounter provided to National Review showed that prior to that encounter, a pro-mask protester slapped at the megaphone of an anti-mask protester. One of the doctors, Tasha Wallace, then appears to have bumped into the anti-mask protester’s arm. That’s when another woman chest-bumped the two doctors off the sidewalk and into the parking lot.
“I was just trying to make my way to the door so I could come in and fill a comment card, and a woman stood in front of me and bumped me out of the way,” Wallace told a local NBC reporter. Attempts by National Review to reach her on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Chrystal Vervaet, a leader of the group Parents for Informed Consent SWFL who filmed the encounter, acknowledged there were physical altercations outside the board meeting. “I think there was good and bad on each side,” she said. All of the recent Lee school board meetings have been heated recently, she said.
“Did it get heated? Yes,” Vervaet said of Monday’s meeting. “But I think the news is blowing it out of proportion.”
No one was seriously injured or arrested during Monday’s scuffles, local law enforcement said.
Lee County is at least the 11th Florida school district to impose a mask mandate while the COVID-19 Delta variant continues to ravage the state. On average, more than 16,000 people have been hospitalized per day over the last week, according to the New York Times.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis issued an order in July empowering parents to decide if their kids would wear masks in school this year, but a judge ruled last week that DeSantis had overstepped his authority by prohibiting school boards from instituting mask mandates. DeSantis said he expects the judge will be overruled on appeal.
Several school districts, including districts in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa areas, defied DeSantis’s order. Lee County’s interim superintendent, Ken Savage, waited until after the judge’s ruling to impose a mask mandate in his district’s schools.
Savage said Monday that he personally does not like mask wearing, and acknowledged that masks alone will not eliminate the coronavirus, according to the News-Press in Fort Myers.
He said there’s nothing he could say to assuage the frustrations of mask opponents.
“I can only say if we can save even one additional life that would have otherwise perished, then this extraordinary additional effort will have been worth it,” Savage said, according to the paper.
There is debate in the medical community regarding just how effective masks are at slowing the spread of the coronavirus among children. In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for schools, recommending that all adults and children wear masks indoors. But several prominent doctors, including the former dean of Harvard Medical School, have said there is a lack of evidence for the benefit of masking young kids.
A New York Magazine article published in late August noted that a groundbreaking CDC study published in May found no statistically significant benefit from requiring students to wear masks. A National Institutes of Health review last year found that cloth masks have limited efficacy in preventing viral infections, depending on the materials used, the number of layers, and how the mask fits.