Doctor says anti-mask crowd was 'uncontrollable' at school board meeting; schools in Fla., Texas defy governors by issuing mask mandates

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Students are headed back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Tennessee doctor speaks out after anti-mask crowd face-off at school board meeting

A special session on mask usage held by Tennessee’s Williamson County Board of Education dissolved into chaos as doctors who spoke about the importance of masks in schools were heckled during the meeting and hounded in the parking lot afterward. Video went viral on Twitter of the scene in the parking lot, with one man threatening a driver with, “We know who you are. You can leave freely, but we will find you.”

Dr. Meredith C. Duke, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who has three children in the school district, tells Yahoo Life that she tried to speak at the meeting “but didn’t get the opportunity.”

Duke says that each speaker was given a minute to talk, whether they were a parent or a medical professional. “There was a loud anti-mask crowd that was uncontrollable,” she says. “Some people got thrown out for interrupting and shouting.”

Duke says that one of the school board members would use a timer to make sure everyone had a minute to speak, but the anti-mask crowd “would start yelling and screaming, ‘Time! Time!’ when it got near the end. They even did this to one of the infectious disease specialists from Vanderbilt.”

“I was watching this in disbelief,” Duke says. “We were at a COVID-19 safety protocol meeting and have an authority on the matter for how we treat and manage viruses, and instead of listening to her, people were drowning her out.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51.3 percent of Williamson County’s population is vaccinated against COVID-19. The county saw 93 new COVID-19 cases in the last day, according to Friday data from the state Department of Health.

Duke needed to leave the session early, and one of her colleagues suggested that he escort her to her car because he was concerned about her safety. “I thought, ‘No way,’” Duke recalls. “I was in a white coat and clearly a physician — no one would be threatened by me.” Duke says she left right before the viral video was filmed and that when she walked outside, she was immediately surrounded by protesters.

“People were screaming, ‘No more masks!’” she says. Duke’s 15-year-old son was with her and protected her from the front, while two law enforcement officers guarded her from the back to help her move through the crowd. “They escorted us to our car and were incredibly kind,” she says. “They insisted on watching me until I left to make sure I wasn’t being followed.”

The Board of Education eventually approved a mask requirement for the district’s elementary school students. Staff and visitors inside all buildings and those riding buses are also required to wear masks. The mandate began this week and will end on Sept. 21. “It’s progress, but it’s not following CDC recommendations,” Duke says. “These children are not protected — they’re not safe.”

Duke says she’s frustrated by what she witnessed. “I was there as a doctor and as a scientist to protect our children in schools,” she says. “The anti-mask crowd ... any time someone said, ‘vaccine,’ they would shout, ‘Those kill you!’ We’re not getting to them. This resurgence of COVID-19 is being fueled by the Delta strain, but also by misinformation.”

Duke says she’s received “threatening” messages on social media since the meeting and has been contacted by security at her work about threats she’s gotten. “My surgeries this week were canceled because we don’t have enough staff and beds,” Duke says. “No one is taking this seriously and they’re even fighting it. Health care workers are exhausted. This just adds to the moral injury. At some point, there’s not going to be people left to care for our hospitalized patients.”

Schools have already seen COVID-19 outbreaks

Schools have opened again in some parts of the country, and some are already seeing large COVID-19 outbreaks. Nearly 850 students and 347 staff members in Mississippi have tested positive for COVID-19 so far in August, according to state data. Nearly 4,500 students are in quarantine due to exposures the week of Aug. 2-6, data shows.

That’s not the only area seeing outbreaks: More than 1,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19 in 10 metro Atlanta schools, which opened at the beginning of August, according to data collected by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Nurse Alisa Ellis-Balogun, from Sphere, tests 7-year-old Thomas Byrd for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Seneca High School a day before returning to school in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., August 10, 2021.  REUTERS/Amira Karaoud
Seven-year-old Thomas Byrd is tested for COVID-19 a day before returning to school in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday. (Amira Karaoud/Reuters)

Infectious disease experts aren’t shocked. “What you are seeing is community spread impinging on schools,” infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “These cases are not linked to schools but are being diagnosed in schools.”

Vaccination and careful safety protocols like mask wearing are crucial to protect students, Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. “At the end of the day, many K-12 children are yet to be vaccinated, and a critical piece of any mitigation plan until that can happen is going to be mask usage,” he says.

Adalja says that reopening schools “should be easier because we have vaccines,” but notes that uptake has not been as good as it should be. He adds, “The default has to be to keep schools operating.”

School districts in Florida and Texas defy governors’ orders by issuing mask mandates

Some school districts in Florida and Texas have defied state law by issuing mask mandates in their buildings. Governors in both states previously instituted a ban on mask mandates.

Texas’s Dallas Independent School District is requiring masks in schools, and a county judge ruled that local officials in San Antonio and Bexar County can temporarily require masks in schools. According to Houston news station KHOU, seven districts total in the state have instituted mask mandates so far.

In Florida, school districts in Alachua, Leon and Broward counties are being investigated by state officials for having mask mandates in their buildings. A communications officer from the Broward Teachers Union tells Yahoo Life that three educators in the school system — two teachers and an education support professional — died of COVID-19 between Monday and Wednesday of this week.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis originally threatened to withhold the salaries of district superintendents who imposed mask mandates, before officials from his office later acknowledged to the Miami Herald that he didn’t have that power.

“School administrators need flexibility to operate,” Adalja says, adding that “it’s clear” that governors in Florida and Texas are opposing masks “in an attempt to pander to certain political pressure groups, irrespective of its impact on the schools.”

“Mask decisions for schools need to be driven by local conditions, not dictated by politicians,” Adalja says.

Arkansas Department of Education now recommends masks in schools

On Tuesday the Arkansas Department of Education announced it was recommending masking in schools, somewhat contradicting state law that bans mask mandates in schools. “School districts are advised to continue practicing preventative measures such as appropriate masking, physical distancing, screening, testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation and cleaning and disinfection to the extent practical,” the updated guidance reads. The University of Arkansas also issued similar recommendations.

The move comes just days after Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he regrets signing a bill in April that banned state and local mask mandates. “In hindsight, I wish that it had not become law,” he said at a news conference in early August. “But it is the law, and the only chance we have is either to amend it or for the courts to say that it has an unconstitutional foundation.”

Last week an Arkansas judge temporarily blocked state officials from enforcing the mask mandate ban. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox ruled that the law violates Arkansas’s Constitution and infringes on the governor’s emergency powers, along with the authority of county officials and the state Supreme Court.

“School districts need flexibility when it comes to mask use, especially among the unvaccinated,” Adalja says. “This should be driven by local dynamics of transmission as well as vaccination levels. This is not something that the state government should intervene upon, as it is going to be different community by community.”

Arkansas is currently facing a massive COVID-19 surge, with numbers that rival those of last winter. According to data from the Arkansas Department of Health, there were 24,433 active COVID-19 cases in the state as of Wednesday. Just 43.4 percent of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Perhaps legislators who are banning mandates may be under the impression that children can’t be seriously impacted by COVID, and that’s just not true,” Russo says. “Even overtly healthy children are landing in hospitals, and there is potential for long-term consequences. In the absence of vaccination, masks are the way to go.”

West Virginia Wesleyan College will charge unvaccinated students extra for fall semester

Students at West Virginia Wesleyan College must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face a $750 fee this semester, school officials have announced. Students who are unvaccinated or who do not submit proof of vaccination by Sept. 7 will be charged.

Unvaccinated people on campus will have to undergo weekly surveillance testing and will need to wear masks at all times indoors unless they’re by themselves and practice social distancing, the school says. Those who don’t will “be subject to student judicial action.”

A spokesperson from West Virginia Wesleyan College tells Yahoo Life that the fee was designed to help “recover the expenses of weekly testing required for students who did not provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination,” adding, “It’s simply for fee recovery.” However, the spokesperson points out that most students on campus are vaccinated.

Russo says it’s “hard to say” if the fee will motivate some students to get vaccinated. “It’s more stick than the carrot, but the carrot has not been that effective,” he says. But, Russo says, requiring unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks indoors could provide an incentive to get vaccinated.

“Some students may be persuaded to avoid the extra cost,” Adalja says. “The extra cost recognizes the fact that we are in a pandemic of the unvaccinated and it is the unvaccinated that are causing disruptions to the lives of the vaccinated.”

Around the U.S.

  • California will become the first state in the nation to require teachers to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID-19.

  • Delaware joins nine states and the District of Columbia in requiring masks in schools.

  • A school district in Kansas has canceled its planned Back to School Bash due to possible COVID-19 exposures among students.