DeSantis holds roundtable on masks in schools: “This should absolutely not be imposed.”

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Governor Ron DeSantis held a roundtable on Monday, July 26, to discuss unmasking children in schools. The panelists-an epidemiologist, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, the principal of a charter school, a parent, and a student–all agreed that masks are not necessary in schools and in fact are harmful to children. The governor said that he and the legislature are prepared “to provide protections for parents and kids who just want to breathe freely.”

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford medical doctor and professor, discussed the fact that there are no randomized control studies and mixed correlational evidence to show that masks are beneficial. Dr. Cody Meissner, a pediatrician, spoke about how the definition of cases and hospitalizations does not require symptoms, so “if a child is hospitalized for the broken leg… and if the child is positive, that child is classified as a COVID hospitalization… but the CDC has not been willing to differentiate between people who are hospitalized with COVID and people who are hospitalized because of COVID.” Dr. Meissner said he “strongly” disagreed with the recommendation that all children, two years and above, need to wear a mask.

Dr. Mark McDonald, a psychiatrist, told heart-breaking stories of children with mental health and anxiety issues caused by masks and lockdowns. He also mentioned a long list of medical problems that he’s seen in children who have to wear masks. He talked about a child who came into his practice last week: “He’s been in lockdown in his home for over a year. He has anxiety. He hasn’t been able to play with his friends, he hasn’t been able to attend school except through Zoom. He’s attached to a keyboard. He brought the keyboard with him. He wouldn’t look me in the face. He was wearing a mask in my office, as was his mother. She told me that he can’t attend sleepovers now. He’s not able to leave her to go to play therapy. Why? Because he has to wear a mask. And if he takes the mask off, he becomes scared. He has separation anxiety.”

Dr. McDonald also discussed the moral implications that have grown around masking: “You have people who do not wear masks, and you have people who do wear masks, and those who aren’t wearing masks, and I’m pointing specifically to children in this case, are viewed as dangerous or viewed as immoral or viewed as non-compliant. In other words, they’re bad.”

Dr. David Withun, from Jacksonville Classical Academy, described their nearly-normal and successful school year last year, including optional masks. Anita Davis, a parent from Tallahassee, talked about her desire for her children to go to school without masks this year. Everett Thompson, a rising high school senior in Tallahassee, talked about the realities of mask-wearing in school.

Here is a transcript, lightly edited for readability. You can view the video here.

Governor DeSantis: We have a panel here today to discuss unmasking our children in schools. As many of you know, there’s been talk amongst the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, to force masking on school children. I think the Academy even says teachers and school children, regardless of even immune status, even if they’ve recovered from COVID, or even if they have been vaccinated. And so we in Florida, at this point, our school districts have proposed mask-optional. But I think our fear is that seeing some of those rumblings, that there may be an attempt from the federal level or even some of these organizations, to try to push for mandatory masking of school children.

And so our view is that this should absolutely not be imposed. It should not be mandated. And I know our legislature feels strongly about it, such that if you started to see a push from the feds or some of these local school districts, I know they’re interested in coming in, even in a special session, to be able to provide protections for parents and kids who just want to breathe freely and don’t want to be suffering under these masks during the school year. We’ve got a great panel… I’m pleased to recognize Dr. Jay Bhattacharya is here from Stanford Medical School. He’s been involved in a number of roundtables that we’ve done, including one that YouTube and Google took down because… I think all the panelists said there was no scientific justification to mask children in schools. So here we are full circle, still talking about that issue. And he is both an MD and a PhD and has really been, I think, right on these issues from the very beginning when there was a lot of hysteria going on. 

We also have Dr. Cody Meissner, renowned pediatrician, as the Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Professor of Pediatrics at the Tufts University School of Medicine… He has been a national authority on a whole host of issues, including CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, as well as the HHS National Vaccine Advisory Committee. 

We also have Dr. Mark McDonald, a practitioner of over 14 years, based out of Los Angeles as a clinical psychiatrist with specific expertise working with children with autism, trauma, obsessive compulsive, and bipolar disorders. And he works closely with families, schools, pediatricians, and therapists to aid in his treatments. 

We also have Dr. David Withun, the Head of School at the Jacksonville Classical Academy. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Army, holds a master’s and PhD in humanities from Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama. And he taught history, literature, and humanities, and his writing has been published in several popular academic outlets. I actually visited the classical school in Jacksonville during the the past school year, and it really was a great example of a success of having kids in school, in-person. And they, from the very beginning of last school year, had a normal school year. They did not have any mask requirements, and basically they didn’t do at least any extreme social distancing that I saw. They basically let the kids be kids, and the results were—I don’t know that they had any more, but they probably even had less COVID cases than other schools who did the opposite. 

We have Anita Davis, who is a concerned parent, mother of two sons. Her sons attend the Governor’s Charter in Tallahassee, and she works as a parent liaison at the school. 

And then we have Everett Thompson, who is a rising senior and lacrosse player at Maclay in Tallahassee. And he is very concerned about masks being required this year. 

So let’s just kick it off. Dr. Bhattacharya, here we are going into the school year. If you go back to where we were, maybe at the end of May, in terms of now, with how the media is treating this, you have delta variant, they’re tracking rising cases in the Sunbelt, which we expected on seasonal basis. Nevertheless, you’re now having people talk about, well, as we get into the fall, what does it mean for schools? Some people potentially even raising the prospects of restrictions. So how should we think of delta? And should that change anything we’re doing with respect to schools?

Dr. Bhattacharya: I don’t think the delta variant changes the calculus or the evidence in any fundamental way, Governor. So if you look at the data from before the delta variant, look at Sweden, for instance, that kept their schools open unmasked, no social distancing all year. The teachers themselves, and this is before the vaccine, were at lower risk of COVID deaths than the population at large, other workers in the population. And the kids themselves had zero deaths, I think, in Sweden during that time. The delta variant is coming in a context where every teacher has had the opportunity to be vaccinated if they so choose, so they’re protected against severe disease. The kids themselves, the evidence continues to show that they’re not spreaders of the disease in an efficient way. The masks themselves have a marginal, if any, benefit in slowing the spread of the disease. And of course, masks do actually cause some harm to children developmentally. So I don’t think that the calculus has changed at all. It’s still the same. I think, on net, it’s not a good idea to mask children.

Governor DeSantis: What do you think about—we obviously had vaccines come out in December of 2020. I think if you look around the country, I know in Florida we’re close to 90% of seniors have gotten shots. I think most states it’s well over 75%, and some are even higher than 90%… You hear about—seems like the vaccines don’t mean you won’t test positive. I think there’s been a lot of people test positive who’ve been vaccinated. But it does seem like we’ve seen a pretty significant decline in mortality amongst people who have been vaccinated. And so what’s the point of tracking these cases the way we’re tracking the cases, if in fact we believe that the data shows the vaccines protect you from severe outcome, but may not necessarily protect you from testing positive?

Dr. Bhattacharya: I think that, in epidemiology, we’re going to want to continue to track cases, but to tell the public at large that one case is exactly like another, when in fact they’re not—if you’re older and unvaccinated, you’d be more concerned about the case, those are the kind of cases you might want to track. If a child gets a case positive, but with very few symptoms… why should we be telling the public or panicking the public over that? So it’s not a question of should we track or not track. To me, it’s a question of putting these numbers in context: we have protected the vulnerable—by vaccinating the older population, we have provided them with enormous protection against severe disease and death.

That’s why you see, even as the cases have risen in Sweden in the past wave, or in the UK in this past wave, and in Florida in this past wave, the number of deaths have not risen proportionally. Why? Because we protected the vulnerable. The key thing to me is hospitalizations and deaths from COVID. While we’ve done an incredible job at decoupling the cases from the deaths, the public focus on cases at this point, I think, only serves to panic people without actually serving any other public health purpose. We should absolutely continue to protect the vulnerable. And certainly there’s reasons to have public interest in that, but to track cases for its own sake, I think, is now counterproductive.

Governor DeSantis: Final thing before we go to some of the other doctors… We’ve had COVID, certainly since January of 2020 that we’ve been aware of COVID, at least—I mean, we probably should have been aware prior to that, but we’re dealing with China. So we’ve had ample time to study a whole variety of things. Is there a single randomized control trial study that shows that masking school children provides a benefit?

Dr. Bhattacharya: There’s only been one randomized study of masks on COVID… in Denmark. And it found essentially no statistically significant benefit to the mask wearer from wearing the mask. I am not aware of any other randomized evaluation of the mask, even though it’s been 18-some months that we’ve been living with COVID.

Governor DeSantis: Are you aware of the people that are very pro-mask requirements and mandates? Can they point to something and say, well, Chicago’s school district had a mask requirement, this other school district didn’t, and look how much poorly the school district that didn’t have the mask requirement performed? Is there even examples of that, where they cite anecdotally?

Dr. Bhattacharya: There’s some correlation studies that are in the literature. I think there was one in Georgia and in a couple other places, but I have to say generally that correlation has been—I view that as poor quality evidence. And even with that caveat, many of them turn out to have—I think I saw a study in Florida that the schools that imposed masks actually had higher rates of teachers getting sick for COVID, and the kids themselves… there’s no difference in outcomes because the kids actually are pretty protected from COVID just by dint of being kids. So the correlational evidence, I think, is mixed, and there’s literally no randomized evidence whatsoever for these masks in schools.

Governor DeSantis: Dr. Meissner… where do you see the debate right now about the forced masking of school children? Is the delta variant changing any of this from a data perspective or just from a political perspective? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Dr. Meissner: Well, first, Governor, let me thank you for inviting me and the opportunity to express my thoughts. It’s very difficult, as you know, to get out any opinion that doesn’t follow the party line. And it’s a very depressing time. So let me, first of all, say hello to Jay. I completely agree with Dr. Bhattacharya, with his comments that have been fantastic during this whole pandemic. Let me make a couple of follow-up points to Dr. Bhattacharya. First of all, we’re seeing disease in two populations right now: we’re seeing COVID-19 infections in adults who have not obtained the vaccine. And I think everyone agrees that adults should be vaccinated. They should be fully vaccinated, either one or two vaccines depending on the manufacturer. And if a person is vaccinated, then that person is more than 99% protected against severe disease, going to the hospital, or from dying.

There will be a small percent who are vaccinated appropriately, and who may turn out to be COVID-positive with some symptoms, such as a runny nose or a cough or sore throat. But remember, that’s not the intention of why we vaccinate people. We vaccinate people to keep them alive, to keep them out of the hospital. 

An additional concern is that the way the CDC is defining a case, they are saying anyone who has a positive PCR assay is a case, and we don’t do that for any other infectious disease, such as chicken pox or measles. If we were to look at a child who had chicken pox, we would see the characteristic rash of chicken pox, and everyone would agree that that child has chicken pox. Here 80% of people who are PCR positive have absolutely no symptoms. So that’s really not a definition of a case. It’s really a distortion of the way we’ve always thought about a specific case of infectious disease. 

Governor DeSantis: Do you just, for clarification, because I think that’s an important point. I looked at the clinical data, I think both Pfizer and Moderna did the same thing. It was reported they’re 95% protective against infection. They defined a case to be a positive test and symptoms. So if you were fully vaccinated, you tested PCR positive, but then you never had any symptomatic illness, you were counted as having been fully protected in that clinical trial. And I think now you’re seeing people who are fully vaccinated, who are testing positive, that is now counting as a case, but it doesn’t have the accompanying clinical symptoms that would have been required for it to be considered a case in the clinical trial. And I raised that because—does that mean that the vaccines are not performing as well as we hoped with preventing infection generally? Or is it just that we have different definitions of cases between what CDC says, just take a positive test, versus what the clinical trials were measuring, which was really a positive test plus some type of symptomatic illness?

Dr. Meissner: Yes, you’re absolutely correct. What we’re concerned about is disease, not colonization or a positive PCR test in the absence of symptoms, because you’re entirely right: out of the small number of people who are hospitalized and have a positive PCR assay, a very small number of them will be hospitalized because of PCR. For example, if a child is hospitalized for the broken leg, he or she is screened for SARS-CoV-2, that’s a standard requirement pretty much throughout the country. And if the child is positive, that child is classified as a COVID hospitalization. It has nothing to do with COVID. The child is hospitalized because she has a broken leg. That leg needs to be set in a cast, and we need to ensure that there isn’t a bacterial infection.

It has nothing to do with it, but the CDC has not been willing to differentiate between people who are hospitalized with COVID and people who are hospitalized because of COVID. The same statement can be said about mortality. We know there have been about 609,000 deaths in Americans since this pandemic began, but if someone dies and has a positive PCR, that’s classified as a COVID death, but we don’t know that. They might have died from heart attack or stroke and happen to be colonized, because remember, 80% of adults, and it’s probably closer to 90% for children who are infected, don’t have any symptoms whatsoever. So I think it’s very important to differentiate a positive test in an asymptomatic person and a positive test in a person who is symptomatic. And at the present time, we’re not able to do that.

Governor DeSantis: So in terms of the upcoming school year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, I think they’re saying every student and teacher should be masked until everyone’s vaccinated. And I think they would even say if you’ve recovered from COVID, you should still have to do it. What is your thought on that? Do you think masks should be optional for students and families, and if so, why?

Dr. Meissner: Yes, sir. I am a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics; I’ve been quite involved with the Committee on Infectious Disease, which is making these recommendations. And I have not had much success at even presenting an alternative perspective. I think the American Academy of Pediatrics is virtue-signaling. They are reporting children who are hospitalized with a positive PCR or cases of PCR-positive children in the community. And it’s really not very useful information.

We know that a lot of people are going to test positive for COVID-19. This is an extremely infectious virus. And just being positive is no different than, for example, a person who is asymptomatic and has Group A streptococcus in their pharynx. They’re not likely to develop disease… Remember, masks are not worn to protect the individual who’s wearing the mask. The CDC has clearly stated that the primary function of a mask is to reduce the spread of virus from a person who’s asymptomatically infected to the contacts who are in a close proximity. Well, whether or not children play a role in transmission… [Garbled audio]… And then even if they do become infected, the likelihood that they will become sick is quite small. I mean, that data is pretty clear.

So I strongly disagree with the recommendation that all children, two years and above, need to wear a mask. Incidentally, that’s inconsistent with what the CDC has most recently recommended. And hopefully, despite the President’s comments yesterday, hopefully the CDC will not change their recommendation. Once again, I think that the harm that has been done to children, both physical, mental, emotional, has been extraordinary. And I think we’re going to be stuck with that for a generation. Really, what we’ve done is, we’ve sacrificed children by closing down the schools in order to protect the adults because children don’t get very sick. And in fact, there are some studies that suggest a child is less likely to become infected in school than she or he is at home.

So it’s a very difficult issue, but I think people like to say they’re basing their decisions on science, but they’re not, they’re basing their recommendations on emotion. And we want to prevent as many infections in children as we possibly can, but people haven’t been thinking about the consequences of the lockdown. They’re going to be extraordinary. Many of the children we have who are hospitalized in the Boston area are hospitalized because of mental health problems. There was a child who was swallowing razor blades, for example. There was another child, adolescent, who killed her dog and needed to be hospitalized. This is the most devastating consequence of SARS-CoV-2 epidemic—it’s on the emotional impairment of health of children.

It’s not the disease, and wearing a mask, as you pointed out and Dr. Bhattacharya pointed out, is not a very effective way of preventing disease. This may change. We may find a new variant that will emerge, that’s more infectious and costs us more severe disease than the delta variant we’re dealing with, primarily—it’s primarily the delta and the alpha variants right now in the United States. This picture could change in time. But as of right now, I think the current recommendation by the CDC that masks are not needed inside, social distancing is not needed inside, even in a choir or in a full-capacity worship service, the masking is simply not indicated at this time.

Governor DeSantis: Dr. McDonald, from a psychiatric perspective, dealing with kids, how do you view the whole notion, the masking in school, forcing them to wear those? Have you seen negative ramifications from that? And do you think it’s a good thing to force masks, or do you think it should be mask-optional in K-through-12 schools?

Dr. McDonald: Thank you, Governor. My position is simple: masking children is child abuse. There is no evidence to support the contention that masks prevent the transmission of respiratory illness, through viruses, at all. And there’s substantial evidence shows that children have been medically, physically, and psychologically harmed by mandatory mask mandates. I said this, and I maintain this position, from last April of 2020, and I continue my position today, unchanged. In fact, I even reinforced this position.

I’ve seen hundreds of children in the last year come to my practice who are coughing, spitting, sick in the throat, streptococcal infections, conjunctivitis, impetigo, allergic reactions, panic attacks, all from masks. Not a single child has benefited medically from wearing a mask, and they’ve all been hurt. I had one come into my practice last week. He’s been in lockdown in his home for over a year. He has anxiety. He hasn’t been able to play with his friends, he hasn’t been able to attend school except through Zoom. He’s attached to a keyboard. He brought the keyboard with him. He wouldn’t look me in the face. He was wearing a mask in my office, as was his mother. She told me that he can’t attend sleepovers now. He’s not able to leave her to go to play therapy. Why? Because he has to wear a mask. And if he takes the mask off, he becomes scared. He has separation anxiety.

My autistic patients are even worse. They can’t wear the mask. So when they take the masks off, they have to leave wherever they are and go back to their home because they’re not able to fly, they’re not able to play, they’re not able to attend their theater groups, their sports. I am appalled that we’re even having this discussion. Every thoughtful, rational adult knows that children do not need to have their faces covered. More children died of influenza last year than ostensibly died of all of the variants combined. And yet we never asked children to wear masks during flu season. Why are we asking them to wear masks now?

There is strong evidence, even as of last week, when Dr. Marty Makary published his report in Johns Hopkins Journal, after studying 44,000 cases of children supposedly infected with this virus, not a single healthy child actually died from it. All the deaths were in children that suffered from severe illness, such as leukemia or morbid obesity. We have studies as early as April from last year out of Germany, in Lower Saxony, that showed that children in schools not wearing masks actually helped prevent in transmission of infection to their teachers, who were worse off when their teachers were staying at home with their own families. I.e., children are actually a sink for the transfer of infection, they do not transfer infection to adults. They do not get sick and die themselves. So the only valid argument to make for masking children is that it protects them or it protects adults. Neither is valid. Neither is substantiated.

On the other hand, there is substantial evidence that they’re being harmed physically and emotionally. Depression and anxiety have gone up 300 and 400% in the last year. In the four counties in Southern California, the coroners showed teenage and child suicide increased between 2019 and 2020, year-over-year. Increased. Mental illness is a catastrophe in this country, primarily due to lockdowns in children, but the mask is not helping. The masks are nothing more than a symbol of fear and anxiety. They do nothing to help us medically, and they’re destroying our country, and we need to take them off of our children’s faces, and we need to let them roam and breathe freely.

Governor DeSantis: Have you noticed—you go back pre-COVID, kids go to school, kids play, it’s just kind of normal. And then with COVID, obviously there were a lot of places, in Los Angeles a lot of kids couldn’t even get back into school in person, but then even in areas where you had [in-person school], and they’re basically being taught the mask is the number one symbol to view themselves and each other as primarily vectors of a disease, rather than just human beings. Have you seen that? And what ramifications does that have for their upbringing?

Dr. McDonald: Well, this has become a medical apartheid state. You have people who do not wear masks, and you have people who do wear masks, and those who aren’t wearing masks, and I’m pointing specifically to children in this case, are viewed as dangerous or viewed as immoral or viewed as non-compliant. In other words, they’re bad. So even children who don’t want to wear masks, who are forced to wear them, feel terrible about this, but they don’t have any choice because if they don’t wear their mask, they’re ostracized. Children cannot co-exist in my city, anyway, with mask mandates, if they don’t wear the mask.

And even without the mask mandate, there are still some women, mothers, fathers, who will not let their children play with other children who don’t wear masks, because they think, without the mask, that their child is going to make them sick. So it really is a kind of stain. It’s a sign for other children to note that when you have a mask on you’re a good boy or a good girl, and if you don’t have it, you’re not. And I think that that’s a very important, visible symbol of separation that we underestimate. A vaccine is one thing—you know, you don’t see a vaccine, and unless you disclose the information or are forced to, nobody knows if you have a vaccine, but you certainly know if you have a mask on, and kids see that right away. When kids see other kids with masks and without masks, they make judgments, they make opinions, and they behave in concert with them.

Governor DeSantis: Dr. David Withun from Jacksonville Classical Academy: So there’s debate about—do you need to have masking?… We had kids in school all last year in Florida. Basically the policies were up to the individual school districts or, in your case, the individual charter schools. And then we also have a lot of private schools. You guys did effectively a normal school year. You did not require masks. I know when I visited the kids, you would not have known that it was post-COVID versus pre-COVID; it just looked like a school. So can you talk about what you guys did and then what the outcomes have been at Classical School?

Dr. Withun: We started the year with 450 students, just over 25 percent of them were online. For those that were in-person, our policy was that the masks were optional. If they wanted, if their parents wanted them to wear it, then they would wear it. We wouldn’t enforce it over the course of the school day. So it wasn’t the role of the teacher, for example, to enforce the wearing of masks. We did eat lunches in the classroom so that they weren’t mixing with other classes, and they were otherwise allowed to function in the classroom. It was a normal classroom, interacting with students, there were no barriers between the desks. They were allowed to play with each other, the teacher was allowed to give them hugs, and so on.

And over the course of the first semester, we had a slow trickle of students which started online, who ended up with us in-person. By January, we had none of them. So we had all of our students, all 450, in the building, essentially functioning as normal in the classroom. And the result was that we had a normal school year. We had a few students and teachers who tested COVID-positive, often at the end of a vacation time and not during the actual school weeks. They stayed home, and the rest of us continued to go on, and then they returned to us when they were well again.

Governor DeSantis: In terms of your COVID experience, did you guys do any worse than any of the schools that required masks, to your knowledge?

Dr. Withun: No, no. We didn’t have any massive outbreaks and have to shut down the school or anything like that. It was essentially a normal year with children out sick occasionally.

Governor DeSantis: And most of the infections, it seems reasonable based on the facts you said, probably did not occur in the school.

Dr. Withun:Right. Yeah. I would dread the end of Thanksgiving and Christmas break and so on because the barrage of emails would come in saying we won’t be back for another two weeks. And that was typically when we had the most cases.

Governor DeSantis: And so overall, I know you guys are getting ready to go back next month, a successful school year for you guys? 

Dr. Withun: Absolutely.

Governor DeSantis: And the parents were happy that the kids were in every day and able to be kids?

Dr. Withun: Yes, absolutely.

Governor DeSantis: And what percentage would you say of kids opted to wear the masks?

Dr. Withun: It was a fairly low percentage, probably between 5 and 10% total. 

Governor DeSantis: Anita Davis, concerned parent, mother of two. Why don’t you talk about, as a mom, talk about your sons and talk about how you view the mandatory masking in schools going forward?

Anita Davis: Well, first I’d like to thank you for having us here today, Governor DeSantis. I’m glad that you are having this discussion simply because, as a parent liaison for Governor’s Charter Academy, specifically, we want it to be a parental choice, right? If you feel strongly about that, then that’s fine. However, our little ones don’t really understand that when they arrive at Governor’s Charter Academy. They don’t understand the social distancing, the mask wearing, and it is very challenging. And that then requires staff, teachers, to police the mask wearing, and much like my counterpart from Jacksonville Classical, we did not have large breakouts at Governor’s Charter Academy.

With our children, well, as a mom at home, our boys are participating in sports without masks. And we are doing our part, right? So I think it comes down to accountability, and that’s what you’re doing. You’re allowing each individual to make that. And if we mandate it, then what are we really saying to our parents, you know, our children? What are we saying to our teachers? Because then when you mandate it, much like last school year with Governor’s Charter Academy, many show up for the mandate, but they’re not providing masks. So then the school has to provide masks. The administration has to make sure, then the teachers have to police it. And we literally had medical personnel on staff that police the classrooms on a consistent basis. It just simply is not feasible for our students. 

Governor DeSantis: So your sons, did they do better without having to wear a mask than having to wear a mask?

Anita Davis: Oh, absolutely. Because especially with our middle son who is on the spectrum, right? So for him, with all of the media coming in and saying that—and he’s very close to his baby brother who went back in person to school, right? His thought process was that my brother’s going to die if he leaves. And then we had to take therapeutic counseling for him to help him understand, no, son, it’s going to be fine. And we just use accountability. We take the proper precautions, right? Like we would with any other thing, with the flu. And we make sure that we are doing what we need, but our boys, for the most part—they’re participating in sports. And the mask probably only helped mom with the smell of football, really. Other than that, nothing.

Governor DeSantis: Everett Thompson, you’re going to be a senior, and you play lacrosse at a local school here in Tallahassee. Talk about mask mandate in school. I know you guys had to have one, last time. This year, maybe it’s going to be optional, it looks like. So what is your view, just as a student, about having to wear a mask all the time, and would you rather have it be optional?

Everett Thompson: Yes, sir. So it was obviously a completely different school year than anything I’d ever experienced. It was quite a challenge to adapt to it and to have to live your day wearing a mask and have to abide by that. And, you know, you can’t slip up and forget your mask or accidentally have it down, but it really caused a problem for my learning, I know a lot of my peers’ learning, as well, because we depend so much on facial expressions and reading lips to comprehend new things and learn from our teachers. And we just got none of that because all you see is a mask, as well as—you walk into a classroom, you’re so used to being greeted by a great smile and instead all you see is a mask and it’s dull. And you’re in the courtyard with your friends hanging out during your break, and you just want to relax and have a good time between your breaks in between classes and not worry about school. And you can’t see them laugh or smile, it’s just the masks. So it was quite a challenge and very different. 

Governor DeSantis: What about in terms of just how effective it was? … Did you have to have them when you were sitting in class, too, wear them the whole time?

Everett Thompson: The only time we [didn’t have to] wear them at school was if we were actively eating or drinking. 

Governor DeSantis: So I’d imagine, though, kids probably had it like around their chin. I mean, was it constantly being policed, like if it falls below your nose or?

Everett Thompson: If it was below your nose, you got warned one time. The second time you get detention.

Governor DeSantis: Did you have to do it for physical activity? Like gym class and stuff?

Everett Thompson: Yeah. So we had to wear our masks during weightlifting and during our—I play lacrosse… we didn’t have to wear them during practices, but during our meetings beforehand, we’d have to wear them all in the meeting room, even though, you know, we’re hanging out after school, we’re all friends outside of school, but, you know, still had to do it. 

Governor DeSantis: And do you think, if given the choice, do you think most of your classmates would choose to not wear a mask?

Everett Thompson: I believe so, yeah, just because we’re all 15, 16, 17, 18-year-old students who aren’t—you know, a good amount of my friends have had it and it’s just a cold, they lose their smell and taste for two weeks, and then they’re back up and firing. So nobody my age without any medical conditions is really concerned about it that I know. 

Governor DeSantis: And even though your school required masks last school year, when you guys would hang out, outside of school, were you required to wear a mask in each others’ homes, or were you guys just behaving normally?

Everett Thompson: Yeah, just went about life normally.

Governor DeSantis: Do you think most parents agree with you that it should be optional that they have choice, or—what’s your sense of talking with other parents?

Anita Davis: Well, I have to work directly with our parents for our school. So basically, they want to make it optional because for the most part, when the children are showing up for school, those parents that are adamant about it, the children are masked. Others show up to school, and we have to provide the mask for them. So obviously they’re not utilizing that on a consistent basis outside in public and in different spaces. So we’ve left it basically up to them. And I think that’s a good choice.

Governor DeSantis: Would you guys wear the same mask every day—or how dirty were these masks? 

Everett Thompson: I personally wouldn’t. I know some people who, you know, just kept theirs in their car and put the same one on every day, but I would just get the disposable ones.

Governor DeSantis: You wore a different disposable mask every day? Okay. I think for sure, you’re going to have some of the kids that wear cloth masks, and they’ll just take it out of the pocket and put it—and there’s definitely some hazards in that when you’re talking about teenage kids. So anything you think that needs to be mentioned?

Dr. Bhattacharya: I want to completely agree on the harms of masking. We sometimes, in the epidemiology community and in the scientific community, we’ve talked about masks as if they were a costless intervention. The psychological harms are real, and the developmental harms are real. And the fact that there really is—not everybody, but a very substantial number of people, that really just don’t like them. We have to take that seriously. We shouldn’t just treat that as if they were a nothing. And I’d ask fellow scientists and other fellow epidemiologists who work on this to think about that, that just because you think that other people should just adopt masks as if there were no costs, you have to listen to people and hear what people are saying, that these are real costs to them. And not just dismiss that as if it were an easy intervention that automatically will address the epidemic. It’s not true that if 90% of the people wear masks, we’ll end the epidemic. 90% of the United States actually reported wearing masks last year, we didn’t end the epidemic, and there’s lots of harms. I think those are real. We should take them into account.

Governor DeSantis: Yeah. And Dr. Meissner, you mentioned trying to work with the American Academy of Pediatrics and not getting through and that they kind of have their agenda. I would just say, just as a parent of a four-year-old daughter, three-year-old son, and a 16-month-old daughter, and I think my wife, I can speak for her, too, I mean, our confidence in some of the pediatric leadership and some of the medical leadership has been shattered by how these people have reacted to this pandemic by not following data, ignoring countervailing evidence, sticking to their script, regardless of the outcomes, ignoring harms, particularly for young people, and being willing—indeed, even delighting in imposing really unspeakable burdens on the most defenseless and least dangerous segment of our society in terms of this, the kids.

And you see that with having kids locked out of school. I mean, we kind of take it for granted in Florida because we had a school year. When we were doing that, we got sued by the teachers’ union that closed the schools. We had all this controversy—there was zero controversy about the data, but it was almost as if that data didn’t exist. And then this idea that we have to put plastic dividers and some of the nonsense that you’ve seen, I just think it’s going to have long-term implications. And when they come out and say that everybody in a school needs to be masked, in spite of the fact that we have schools like Classical School in Jacksonville, we have—a majority of our school districts required, but many did not. And those are massive numbers of schools as well. There was no difference in outcomes in any of these places. Of course, our private schools, by and large, parents could do what they wanted to do.

We have a whole school year in the books about this, at this point. And to just ignore that and to continue, I think, is very, very problematic, and I know we live in a very political age and there’s a lot of partisanship, but the confidence, I think, parents are going to have going forward when some of these authority figures speak on other issues, I think, is going to be dramatically reduced. And I think rightfully so. I mean, I’m sorry to say, but if it wasn’t for some of us sticking up for the kids, you would have had millions of more kids locked out of school for most of last year. So we didn’t let that happen in Florida.

And basically, going forward, we believe that parents can make decisions about their child’s health and safety, which is why we think that parents can make the decision about whether the kids should be wearing masks in school. I think the vast majority of parents in Florida are probably going to opt against doing that because I think that they recognize the track record of the last year. And there’s not evidence in places where you can say because they didn’t have masks, they had these horrible outcomes. That just didn’t happen. We basically had normal school years in many parts of the state, they were successful. You had school years in other parts, which were in person, which is good, where there was mitigation like masks and maybe some other things. And you know what, the COVID results were no different. But I do think the comfort of the students, things like being able to see people smile and have a good time, I mean, that’s normal human behavior and that’s things that we need to make sure that we’re exposing our kids to.

I want to, one, just commend all the Florida school districts, who up to this point have all adopted policies of masks being optional and basically being the decision of the parent and the student. And I think we look forward to starting the school year without that being the case. I think that that’s the most just way to do it, and at the same time—when we see some of this stuff rattling around, when they say that all these elementary school kids are going to have to wear masks all day coming out of Washington, coming out of these organizations, I just thought it was important to make sure that we get some folks together who can speak intelligently about this, both from a medical perspective, a psychological perspective, but also just the perspective of people on the ground who are running schools, who have kids in school, or who themselves are in school, and I think it really makes a difference.

So our hope is that we go into next school year full throttle, just like last year, but a normal school year. And if you look back, about this time everyone was gearing up, and I remember Good Morning America would show up at some of our school districts to try to act like, oh my gosh, impending doom. And that was kind of the narrative when we’d have athletics, all this stuff—they tried to stop college sports last year at this time. I remember the Big 10, they canceled the season. We made sure that the SEC, ACC, and the other conferences here in Florida, our schools were playing, and we weren’t gonna deprive the student athletes of those opportunities, but there’s just been so much nonsense that’s been put out. Hopefully we can kind of be grounded on this, go forward, I think, in an intelligent way, and just make sure that Anita and her fellow parents get to make the decisions that you think is best for your boys. And that’s all that I would ask for, as a parent, as well. I think that that’s something that’s reasonable. All right. Any parting shots from anyone, or is there anything that we missed from the discussion? 

Dr. Meissner: Cody Meissner here, I would just like to remind people that an education is one of the most fundamental rights that a child has. An education is the route by which a person can get out of poverty or have equality in terms of opportunity. And closing of the schools has aggravated the issue of inequity in our society. It’s been more harmful for children who come from a family of limited resources because they can’t afford to send them to a private school. They can’t afford to hire tutors, and those parents may not have the time to do the teaching themselves. I so fully agree with your comment, that we are going to be stuck with a generation of children who are suffering the consequences of this. And I think we’re enhancing inequity within our school systems. And I think wearing a mask, as has been pointed out by Everett, a very eloquent young man, that impairs the learning experience. And the consequences of doing this far exceed any very limited benefit. So thank you. And I commend you, too, governor, for your support of this.

Governor DeSantis: Absolutely—last year when the kids went back, we had a period of virtual in the tail end of the ’19-’20 school year, as I think everywhere in the country did. And we have really been pioneers in distance learning in Florida. We have a Florida virtual school. Other states were actually coming to us saying, hey, how are you doing this? So we did a very good job with the tools we had. But even with that, even though we had put a lot of resources into it, the distance learning was just a far cry from actually being in-person, particularly with some of our students with special needs—I mean, it was a total disaster. And so we recognize the importance, but the thing that struck me was not just the academic benefits of doing it, which is obvious when you have a teacher there, but how people felt—the first day of school in August, 2020, in Florida, every single principal, teacher, I talked to, they never saw the parents and students so happy to be back because they were back amongst their peers, they were back amongst their colleagues, and they understood how important that was. 

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