The Barcia siblings, Austin, 10, and Avery, 8, never struggle to imagine their small living room transforming into an endless forest.
In one of their favorite games to play together, the duo pretends to catch or battle Pokémon characters.
“When we’re not fighting, we do enjoy playing,” said Austin. He’s a student in the fourth grade at the M.K. Rawlings Center for Fine Arts in Gainesville.
But Austin’s role as Avery’s brother extends beyond sibling quarrels and playtime; he’s also her protector. Avery, a third grader at Rawlings, endured a perinatal stroke and now lives with cerebral palsy, reactive airway disease, severe asthma, sleep apnea and a blood clotting disorder.
“COVID could just rip her,” said mom Tillissa Barcia. “And I just hope it doesn’t, pray it doesn’t.”
The Barcias are one of many families in the Alachua County Public Schools district who fought for the employee and student mask mandate, which incited a lawsuit among ACPS, Broward County and Orange County public schools against the Florida Department of Health.
The lawsuit follows the Florida Department of Education’s decision to withhold school board member monthly salaries for defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order, “Ensuring Parents’ Freedom to Choose – Masks in School.” The legal feud is stirring controversy among ACPS families as some stand with the school board’s refusal to sway in the direction of the governor while others push for parents’ rights.
Barcia said she doesn’t understand why some parents don’t want to comply because of the options ACPS offers.
“If you go in that school without a mask, you’re trying to say that I have to pull my kids out because my daughter might die?” she said.
ACPS provides families with a student mask opt-out medical exemption, and ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said about 70 slips have been signed by a medical professional. Nearly 30,000 students attend one of the about 40 schools in the ACPS district, and many forms were denied after parents tried to submit them with only their signatures but no medical professional.
Tayari Appiah, a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in District 21, is one of the parents who attempted to exempt his children from wearing masks in school but was unsuccessful in receiving a signature from a physician.
Appiah pulled his first grade daughter and fifth grade son out of Boulware Springs Charter School and enrolled them in Alachua eSchool because he said the mandate does not abide by the Florida Parents’ Bill of Rights. Now, he said he is hoping to see the removal of ACPS school board members.
“I don’t feel that our superintendent truly cares about our children,” he said. “It seems our superintendent is more interested in partisan politics.”
Appiah was one of about five people protesting at the corner of Southeast First Street and West University Avenue on Tuesday evening during a school board meeting. The protesters held signs calling for the firing of superintendent Carlee Simon, a repeal of the mask mandate and resistance to “school board fascists.”
Outside, drivers honked horns in support. Inside the school board meeting, one public commenter was removed for refusing to keep his mask on.
Tina Certain, the vice chair of the board, said law enforcement presence at meetings has increased. Normally, one or two deputies remain in the room, but now the meetings require about four deputies who also accompany board members out of the building after the meetings are over to prevent conflicts with lingering public commenters.
The heightened tensions have not persuaded the board members to change their course of action.
“I’d rather not receive my salary and then do whatever I could to keep staff and our students safe,” Certain said.
ACPS superintendent Carlee Simon said the Parents’ Bill of Rights has a provision allowing state entities to modify practices and meet the needs of an organization in the event of a crisis, such as a pandemic.
“Individual liberties are important to protect, but your liberties can’t trample on other people’s liberties,” Simon said.
The board says the mask mandate was implemented not as an act of defiance against the governor but as a response to the COVID-19 conditions in Alachua County. During the week the mask mandate was instituted, the county had 29,182 cumulative COVID-19 cases, an increase of 1,418 from the prior week with a positivity rate of 14.6%. according to the Alachua County Department of Health coronavirus dashboard.
The COVID-19 positivity rate in schools across the district is at least twice as bad as it was around this time last school year, Simon said, and because it was appropriate to have a face mask policy then, the current mandate is necessary.
“The more it’s considered political by anybody, the worse it is,” ACPS board member Robert Hyatt said. “It’s a fight that didn’t need to start.”
Christina Abello blames parents for the strife. Abello has three children, two of whom attend Glen Springs Elementary School, and she said they never complain about wearing masks in school.
“It’s the adults that are acting like spoiled, selfish children who are throwing a temper tantrum,” she said.
Abello is a single mother without the support of local family and friends who could care for her children if she contracted COVID-19.
“If I get sick and end up in the hospital, where do my children go?” she said. “I am an island unto myself.”
When her sons climb into her car after school, Abello said the boys share stories of classroom activities and celebrations, not complaints about masks.
“It’s just another thing, kind of like how you have your socks on,” she said. “Why would you talk about your socks?”