Maleah has asthma and many other students at Navarre High School no longer wear masks, her mom tells CNN, wearing a KN95 mask as she chats outside.
“It’s a very simple means to help prevent disease spread, and it’s been something that people have been doing for years,” she said. “Every time you go to your dentist’s office or you go to have surgery, people are wearing a mask.”
At another home in Santa Rosa County in the northwestern panhandle of Florida, Cynthia Licharowicz is also raising a 16-year-old daughter in the pandemic. As she checks in on Sydney heading off to Milton High School, she doesn’t push for the teen to take a mask.
Talking to CNN on her front porch decorated with American flags, including one that reads “Land of the free… home of the brave,” Licharowicz talks of how it’s time for attitudes to change.
“At the beginning, I wore the mask. I bought masks. I made everybody wear them. When they said stay home for a month, we stayed home for a month. We didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t let our kid go anywhere. We did everything we were told to do,” she said. “But the rules don’t make sense anymore.”
Licharowicz says wearing a mask should be purely a matter of choice. For Colón, the ongoing pandemic makes masks necessary and mandates to wear them a public health issue.
The opposing views took center stage at a contentious Santa Rosa County School Board meeting last week.
“This is doing psychological damage to our children, and y’all don’t care,” one parent shouted, demanding an end to masks being mandatory.
“We are teaching our kids to keep their mouth shut, keep their feelings to themselves,” another parent told the board.
The school board’s chair, Wei Ueberschaer, was jeered and heckled as she explained her stance, encouraging the use of masks, while also supporting the immediate removal of the mandate.
“I’m truly sad that face masks have morphed from a protective strategy to a political issue,” Ueberschaer said in a raised voice, trying to overcome shouting from parents in the room.
A county school survey showed 40% of parents wanted the mask mandate removed. Fifty-three percent of employees wanted to keep masks, at least until the end of the school year.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that schools should “prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.” But Ueberschaer agreed to end the mandate, to follow a contrary new public health advisory from Florida’s surgeon general that said: “Continuing Covid-19 restrictions on individuals, with no end in sight, including long-term use of face coverings and withdrawal from social and recreational gatherings, pose a risk of adverse and unintended consequences.”
Other school districts across the country have also lifted mask mandates or are discussing doing so, sometimes under intense pressure from parents. Parents in Iredell County, North Carolina, chanted “No more masks! No more masks!” at a school board meeting, CNN affiliate WBTV reported. An online petition calling a mask mandate “unhealthy” and “unlawful” was submitted to the Pewaukee School Board in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with more than 600 signatures, CNN affiliate WISN said. No decision was taken there. In Yukon, Oklahoma, the school board voted to keep masks on buses and in common areas but allowed some flexibility in classrooms after a heated debate, according to CNN affiliate KOCO.
Colón shared her thoughts with the Santa Rosa County School Board through email, and during a meeting.
“To me it’s not about choice,” Colón said. “Choice would be something like, you choose to do something with your body that doesn’t affect anybody else. But in this instance, this decision to not wear a mask affects everybody around you, affects your entire community.”
Licharowicz insists she is not selfish, rather fighting to protect the Constitution.
“Whenever someone steps on your right to get their right, it’s an erosion of rights,” she said. “My rights don’t end where your feelings begin.”
Dr. Lisa Gwynn, President of the Florida Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics, warns against lifting mask mandates.
“It’s not just about civil liberties, it’s about the protection of all of the vulnerable that are in our community,” Gwynn said. “Any mask will be better than no mask.”
Children and teens are now making up a greater proportion of new Covid-19 cases, Dr. Sara Oliver of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Wednesday. The CDC now estimates 22 million children aged 5-17 have been infected with coronavirus overall, accounting for 19% of all infections.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Gwynn said. “We’re in the homestretch but if we don’t protect our most vulnerable, it’s going to continue to drag on.”
Licharowicz, who believes she and her family contracted Covid-19 and whose father was a confirmed case before he died, says she does not believe the science that masks are effective.
“I have a lot of faith in Jesus Christ,” she said. “If it’s my time to go, I’m going. And it doesn’t matter if I wear a mask or not.”
She and Colón stand by their opposing views on masks but agree that divisions are driven by politics.
“Politics have made mask wearing a Republican, Democrat thing instead of it being just a medical thing,” Colón, a Democrat, said.
Licharowicz, who describes herself as a Trump supporter who regrets once voting for Obama,” said, “The mask is political. I don’t care what anybody says. I feel it. I hear it. I see it.”
While they do not agree on mandates, both women say they support their daughters’ choices, whether or not they mask up.